Little Falls Council feels pressure to hurry with ordinance update
By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
The city of Little Falls is continuing its quest to update its sign ordinance; Little Falls city resident Robin Hensel is continuing her quest to ensure every sign in the city is in compliance with the city’s sign ordinance.
Late last year, after the city received complaints from other residents, Hensel was asked by the city to remove multiple signs in her yard, saying they were in violation of the city sign ordinance which allows up to two square feet of signage on a property in a residential area.
Monday night, the Council received a list Hensel compiled naming 44 possible sign ordinance violations — for the most part, signs and banners displayed at businesses.
Some of the signs are not within city limits, some are placed with a permit from the city and some meet the parameters of the current city ordinance.
City Attorney Toni Wetzel advised the Council during its work session Monday, that enforcing the sign ordinance until it was updated, would “just complicate the situation.”
The sign ordinance is currently in the hands of the Planning Commission. The Council’s decision will come after the Planning Commission has made its recommendations.
Keeping the sign ordinance simple, fair and enforceable is the goal set before the Council.
While the Council may be able to dictate the size of a sign, it cannot dictate its content, said Wetzel.
So too, any language that offers “discretion” must not be included in the updated ordinance. If a decision is left to an entity’s discretion, such as the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), the possibility of discrimination and preferential treatment exists, said Wetzel.
The current sign ordinance contains language that allows discretion on a case by case basis by the HPC, in the area deemed the historic downtown area.
Wetzel has been working with the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) and said each of the three people she spoke with cautioned against language allowing discretion.
“My thought on that is we need to be very careful, and we need to modify tremendously how their (the HPC) portion reads right now, because they are very discretionary,” said Wetzel.
The guidelines set for different districts (commercial, residential, historic) within the city must be clear; anyone meeting the guidelines gets to post their sign, said Wetzel.
“You as a Council may not like that and members of the HPC are very concerned,” said Wetzel. The cause for concern is the possibility that the character of the historic downtown area will be lost.
Wetzel said for enforcement purposes, it would clearly be cleaner to choose a separate historic designation.
“You can certainly do that, but you have to clean that language up. We really have to box them (the HPC) in,” said Wetzel.
The LMC, which provided sign ordinance language from the city of Hopkins as an example, told Wetzel the city had to get its new ordinance completed as soon as possible.
Wetzel said the LMC’s position on the issue was rather simplistic.
“You need a few basic things in a sign ordinance for it to pass muster,” said Wetzel.
It must contain a statement of purpose, a substitution clause and a definition of the size of sign allowed.
Beyond that, said Wetzel, the Council has to decide if it wishes to add rules to keep the “personality” of the city.
“Basically, you need to get this done. You cannot make this a long extended process, because you are in limbo and really this should be straight forward,” the city attorney said.
Wetzel said the LMC recommended the vast majority of the work be done by staff and by herself, to move the process along quickly.
“I don’t think their purpose was to cut the Council out, but basically too many cooks in the kitchen spoils the stew,” said Wetzel.
“I know it’s difficult,” said Wetzel. “I know it’s hard to make decisions to live with, but we need to move this forward as quickly as we can so that we can get an ordinance in place, to be enforced consistently across the board for everybody.”
Another item that must be dealt with is a time frame. “We need to try to at least set a goal date that we can articulate,” said Wetzel.
Wetzel advised the city to send a letter to Hensel in regard to her list of possible signs in violation, to let her know it has been received and that the city is actively working on the sign ordinance.
“… We take this seriously; this isn’t something that we’re trying to bury in a hole,” said Wetzel.
Although Wetzel said the Council may get flack from the community, “From the converse perspective, we have somebody now that has made it abundantly clear that she’s considering litigation on this, and we need — not just for her sake but for everyone else’s sake — to have a defendable ordinance that we can actually enforce,” she said.
She cautioned the Council that additions to a basic ordinance could not allow multiple exceptions to the ordinance.
“You’re going to be under a microscope; staff is going to be under a microscope and I’m going to be under a microscope,” said Wetzel.
The Council was asked to attend Monday’s Planning Commission meeting, to offer input on the sign ordinance. The open meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall.
Attorney Larry Frost of Paladin Law PLLC in Bloomington, said he agreed Monday to represent Hensel, should she choose to pursue a lawsuit against the city.
Frost said the city’s current ordinance is illegal and violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits the making of any law that abridges the freedom of speech.
While Frost said he didn’t feel ill will was involved, “Negligence is just as bad as ill will when it comes to a principle right as guaranteed by the Constitution,” he said.
As of Thursday, a decision to move forward with a lawsuit against the city had not yet been made.
Little Falls City Council Briefs
In other business at Monday’s meeting, the Little Falls City Council:
• Unanimously voted to have the city’s water towers evaluated at a cost of $6,286. This has not been done for about 10 years. A diver will physically enter the tanks exploring them with a camera, using a sterilized system approved by the Minnesota Department of Health;
• Approved unanimously to have a street lighting engineering study done to evaluate potential cost savings and improvements to the city’s street lighting system;
• Unanimously approved payment of two change orders in the amounts of $9,887.66 and $58,426.29, for water treatment facility improvements done by Magney Construction in 2011. The funds will be taken from the Water Improvement Fund;
• Approved permits for a temporary on-sale liquor license for Horizon Health for a June 28 event and for a fireworks display at Mill Park during the Dam Festival, June 16;
• Learned during the Council’s work session that the city would waive any penalties incurred by residents who were late paying their utility bills due to their accounts being frozen at Home Savings of America; and
• Discussed briefly the possibility of redistricting the city now that the state redistricting has been completed.
The next regularly scheduled meeting for the Little Falls City Council is Monday, March 19, at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.
Prior to the regular meeting, the Council will hold its work session at 6:30 p.m.