ST. JOSEPH — It’s been two years in the making, and it updates regulations that haven’t been revised since 1980.
It’s a complete overhaul of St. Joseph’s sign ordinance, Kristen Gundersen, community development director, told city commissioners Monday.
The city planning commission adopted the draft ordinance Nov. 7, after 29 meetings reviewing existing laws here and in other communities, Gundersen said. They are asking that commissioners give the proposal its first reading at their Jan. 13 meeting, with the final vote scheduled for Jan. 27.
“The draft sign ordinance is intended to decrease the number or size of signs to help reduce clutter, create a visually appealing streetscape, and improve the visual character of main thoroughfares while protecting the right to display and receive messages,” Gundersen explained in a letter to commissioners.
It also makes the regulations clearer for city staff and the public. The ordinance was expanded from 19 definitions to 55, which includes a total of 45 new definitions. Several existing definitions were modified and five drawings were included to further explain the definition.
A lot has changed since the current ordinance was approved, including the introduction of electronic message boards, the ease of obtaining temporary signage, and trends in lighting, all of which are addressed in the proposed update, Gundersen said.
The revisions also put St. Joseph in compliance with a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring that rules based on the content of signs are mostly unconstitutional.
During the study period, city staff reviewed more than 125 sign ordinances from Berrien County, Michigan and across the country, looking for portions that would help to improve the document, and looked at numerous photographs. Staff also attended webinars and conference workshops, and the city attorney was involved with a municipal attorney group looking at the many issues involved. An outside attorney reviewed and commented on the proposals.
The planning commission identified 12 types of signs that do not require a permit for installation, and 18 types of signage that are not allowed. Those prohibited include animated, inflatable and revolving signs, as well as reflective or mirrored signs.
The ordinance also sets limits on wall signs. For free-standing ground signs, it decreases overall height from 20 to eight feet, and decreases total square footage for any free-standing sign from 50 to 25 square feet for parcels with less than 50 feet of street frontage.
Examples of a temporary sign include a construction sign, garage sale sign, political sign, real estate sign, and sandwich board. It allows a maximum size of 6 square feet, or a total of 24 square feet for one and two-family dwellings, with a maximum overall height of 4 feet. Banners are allowed a maximum of 14 consecutive days up to four times per calendar year when a permit is received, and it can be no larger than 32 square feet.
The draft provides regulations for the internal and external illumination of signs by use of 10 points that are easy to understand, rather than a single long paragraph. It provides seven standards for changeable message boards while limiting the total size to 50 percent of the total sign face, in addition to establishing six standards for electronic message boards.
The proposed ordinance adds new language to help improve the appearance of free-standing signs and requires a decorative cover over the base of a sign pole, while limiting the width of the cover based on the size of the sign for all pole signs. It prohibits incorporation of flashing lights or electronic message boards on billboards.
City staff believes it will be important to create informational handouts for the different types of sign regulations to help in the education of the document once adopted. In addition, staff will be creating a new application for signage that is required to be reviewed and approved by the planning commission.
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