Council allows Old Town’s neon to keep glowing

Way businesses advertise on Auburn sidewalks changes in February
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Supporters of neon window signs in Old Town glowed over the Auburn City Council’s decision Monday to shelve a proposal that would have limited businesses in that region to displaying one electronic sign per storefront. “Finally,” said Hank Gonzales, owner of the California Club in Old Town, which has several neon signs advertising various beer brands. “After going to the planning commission and then working with the City Council, I think that most of us in Old Town and throughout the city have achieved what we wanted.” The Council voted unanimously to approve the new sign regulations ordinance and also to end the city’s temporary sign program on Feb. 19 – 90 days after the updated sign rules take effect. The Auburn Planning Commission had recommended businesses in Old Town be limited to one neon or electronic window sign per store front. The proposal would have allowed the eight businesses with two or more of the signs to keep them, but they could not be replaced, altered to extend their life or relocated. Councilman Keith Nesbitt said he feared that would possibly result in “selective enforcement of the ordinance.” “A new business could come into town and be here for years and years and still only have one or two new (neon) signs, while an existing business continues to thrive with their 15 existing signs,” Nesbitt said. The exclusion of neon sign regulations in the new ordinance effectively makes them legal, with no limitation on how many can be displayed, how frequently they can be replaced or otherwise. They had been illegal under the previous set of rules, although that rule had not been enforced, said Will Wong, Auburn community development director. “I think that it’s smart for Council to promote and support businesses by having absolutely clear rules and things aren’t arbitrary,” Mayor Kevin Hanley said. “Right now we have an outdated sign ordinance put together in 1983, and I think it’s time to put those clear rules out there without putting new burdens on the businesses, many of whom are still struggling out there, and I think we’ve done a good job so far.” During Monday’s public comment, several people including Gonzales spoke out about limiting neon signs while no one offered outright support for the limitation. Council members Dr. Bill Kirby and Bridget Powers said they had never heard complaints about neon signs in Old Town, and Nesbitt said most people he’s talked to around town said to “leave the signs alone.” In March 2009, the Council voted to relax regulations with a temporary sign program to help businesses attract customers during the recession – allowing banners, A-frames and balloons to be displayed indefinitely, Wong said. Once that ends, businesses will be able to display a banner for 40 days out of a year – a number the Council settled on that is a compromise of suggestions from the Old Town Business Association, Downtown Business Association and Chamber of Commerce. Wong said nearly “99 percent” of the new sign ordinance is just updating legal framework, as it hadn’t been significantly updated since the early 1980s. Free-standing signs are the only type that will be more restricted in the new ordinance as they have new height requirements, he said. In April 2011, the Council voted to extend the temporary sign program and also directed the staff to update the city’s sign ordinance in a year, which is why it came before the Council on Sept. 10 for the first public hearing. It then decided to hold a second hearing, seeking more input from businesses on the issues relating to banners, neon signs and the termination of the temporary program. “It’s really hard to know if this is a time to tighten something up or a time to change the rules … or maybe enforce the rules,” said Dave Johnson, president of the Old Town Business Association. Hanley asked Johnson when the Council should firm up some of these rules and make them uniform. “Would I be in trouble for saying there is no good time?” he replied. Jon Schultz can be reached at