Los Alamos County Community Development Department Assistant Planner Anita Barela, right, Planning Manager Tamara Baer and members of the Planning and Zoning Commission discuss proposed changes to the sign code Wednesday night. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/ladailypost.com
By KIRSTEN LASKEY
Los Alamos Daily Post
A dispute over signage between a church and the town of Gilbert, Ariz., which was carried all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, prompted Los Alamos County to make changes to its own sign codes.
The changes were introduced to the Planning and Zoning Commission Wednesday night.
Community Development Department Planning Manager Tamara Baer said the commission was just being introduced to the draft sign code changes, the code changes will return to Planning and Zoning or action March 28.
The biggest change made is removing all regulation of content, with exception to cases where there are compelling government interests such as safety.
Baer mentioned other changes as well:
- Sign Areas. The number of sign areas are reduced from five to four. Sign Area 2, which applied only to Pajarito Acres in White Rock, has been eliminated and is now included in Sign Area 1, which is essentially all residential areas. There were only two differences previously between Sign Areas 1 and 2. First, commercial and industrial “building identification” signs could be two square feet in Sign Area 1 and four square feet in the former Sign Area 2. And second, “incidental commercial” signs were allowed in Sign Area 2, but not in Sign Area 1. Both of these sign categories are removed and replaced by “minor” sign regulation.
- Permanent versus Temporary Signs. The main structural change in the new code is the separation of all signs into two categories – permanent and temporary. Since virtually all sign applications are either for permanent or temporary signage, dividing the two types creates ease of access to the regulations as well as simplifying the understanding and processing of permits.
- Duration of display. Related to temporary signs, the County proposes issuing a “sticker” for signs that will show their expiration dates.
- Strictness or leniency. The revisions aim to find a balance between an implicit leniency once content is removed and sufficient regulation to preserve aesthetics and prevent visual clutter. Along these lines, the regulations also try to address issues raised by the business community, both regarding the specific rules governing signage and the permitting process.
- New “Sign Area” Maps. The Sign Area maps have been revised to show the four sign areas, versus the previous five. Graphics are updated for clarity, and the total number of maps is reduced from five to three.
“Overall the idea is we are simplifying the regulations, we are making them easier to access (and) making them easier to understand … and enforce,” Baer said.
There was some discussion about another ordinance revision that will soon be presented to Planning and Zoning-this one pertaining to outdoor lighting. Commissioner Ashley Mamula said she had some concerns about the outdoor lighting ordinance revisions. She asked about lighting as it pertains to the lighting of signs at night time, including electronic messaging signs, or EMCs (Electronic Messaging Centers).
“(I’m) … just thinking about that going forward and making sure we’re making good decisions about signs. Is there way for us to proactive in how we look at illuminated signs or lit signs,” she said.
Baer said electronic signs are only allowed for non-residential uses. She added state statute addresses the (night sky/ darkness) issue but isn’t very strict. Baer said the County will look at the purpose of the sign and will work to prevent glare and protect the night’s sky as well as people’s privacy and property values.
“We’re looking at protecting neighbors and people’s use of their own property,” Baer said.
Commission Chair Michael Redondo said he didn’t feel the revised codes made significant changes to regulations for electronic signs. “From what I see here (is) we’re preserving as much as possible … all that’s getting sucked out is that content regulation,” he said.
According to agenda documents, the discussion for the sign code changes was a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. A pastor in the town of Gilbert, Ariz., placed temporary signs in the town’s right-of-way advertising church services. The town’s sign code disallowed those signs and the town required their removal. The church challenged the ordinance and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court as a First Amendment issue. The Court found that sign regulations based on content were prohibited.