Ninth draft of Little Falls’ sign ordinance may be the charm

Draft sent to LMC  before process for  approval continues

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
terry.lehrke@mcrecord.com

The Little Falls Planning Commission, city staff and the city attorney have been working to update the city’s sign ordinance for several months. Now, in its ninth draft, the ordinance is ready to send to the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) for its review.

If the LMC finds the ordinance as written protects the right to freedom of speech, the ordinance will come before the Little Falls City Council, a public hearing will be called for and a date set.

Once the public hearing is held and residents have their say if they choose, the City Council has the ultimate authority on whether the sign ordinance is approved or not.

Public Works Director and Co-City Administrator Jerry Lochner, said not a lot has been changed from the old ordinance to the new.

Some language was changed to prevent any control of free speech and definitions cleared up as well. So too, any items referred to in different ways were changed to be consistent.

Perhaps the change that residents will notice the most, will be enforcement of the ordinance.

In the new ordinance, it is illegal to erect an off-premise sign — such as garage sale signs set up down the block from the sale or signs advertising an event down a few streets like the Little Falls Senior Center doughnut sale, St. Mary’s Church breakfast or the fish fry at the VFW.

The rule is exactly the same as in the old ordinance — but as the city’s attorney, Toni Wetzel, has advised the Council repeatedly, the sign ordinance not only needed to be updated, but it must be enforced.

Any sign advertising an item or event that is not displayed on the property owned by the business or event holder, even if the actual property owner gives permission, is illegal under the ordinance.

That includes the electronic marquee signs owned by businesses where many times a specific event is publicized as a public service announcement.

Nor can a resident put up their own sign advertising a product or event not sold or being held on their own property.

Because the Little Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and the West Side Improvement Association obtain a permit for Arts and Crafts Fair and Antiques and Collectibles event vendors, and provide all the necessary insurance, policing, dumpsters, etc., vendors at these fairs will legally be able to display signs at their own stand.

The Chamber and the WSIA however, will not be able to post signs in town advertising their events.

One exemption to the rule, said Lochner, is the Morrison County Agricultural Society displaying its signs on the fairgrounds during the fair. These were exempted in the old ordinance and will continue to be exempt in the updated version.

A section was added to allow the city to have kiosks on city property such as at Maple Island Park, containing information for visitors.

Lochner said for the most part, the portion of the ordinance that allows signs in the city’s various business districts hasn’t changed much at all.

In some instances, it allows more signage, such as an overhanging sign may be four feet instead of two, and once upon a time the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) determined only a certain percentage of a business’ window could be painted.

No more.

“In the new ordinance, we don’t care what you paint in your window, or put inside your window,” said Lochner. “We care about signs on the outside of the building.”

As long as those signs meet the square footage allowed as determined by front footage, they are legal under the new ordinance.

For example, in areas zoned B1, mostly found in outlying areas in the city, businesses are allowed one square foot of sign per front foot of their lot. If a lot has 40 feet of frontage in a B1 district, 40 square feet of signage is allowed.

In areas zoned B2, which is most of downtown Little Falls, including the historic area, two square feet of signage per front foot of lot is allowed. That same 40 square foot of frontage in B2 is allowed 80 square feet of signs.

In areas zoned B3, generally on the outskirts of town near the freeway, three square feet per front foot of lot is acceptable — 80 feet of frontage, 240 feet of signage.

“Coborn’s, Lora B’s, fast food places, Walmart, are all in the B3 district,” said Lochner.

Sandwich board signs can only be placed in front of a business advertising itself and must be brought in at night. In addition, only one  is allowed per building, no matter how many businesses the building houses.

“That sandwich board doesn’t count in square footage of signs,” said Lochner. “So in some ways it’s better. I think in most ways it’s better.”

The biggest issue in the ordinance to most people, he said, is that no off-premise signs, no temporary signs and no portable signs are allowed.

In a district zoned as residential, the new ordinance allows residents in areas zoned R1 to have eight square feet of sign, with up to two signs. So, one 2-foot by 4-foot sign, or two 2-foot by 2-foot signs, as an example.

The biggest change in the residential area is allowing the signs to be placed five feet off the property line instead of 10.

“In an R3 district, you are allowed 32 square feet of sign per surface, with a maximum of three signs, four feet off the ground,” said Lochner. “The problem is that there are many R3 districts zoned as such that have one and two-family houses.”

So a couple of lines were added to the ordinance spelling out how many square feet of signs are allowed on property zoned R3, depending upon the size of the lot.

When election signs are allowed to go up and when they must come down is governed by state law. The wording in the city sign ordinance defers to the state law in regard to election signs.

Enforcing the ordinance will be key. Lochner said one or more city staff members will be appointed who will have to know the ordinance well enough to make sure it is interpreted fairly and equitably.

In the residential district, it may be complaint driven, or a staff member may investigate block by block to determine if all is in compliance. The procedure has yet to be determined.

Lochner said staff will have to go back to the Planning Commission and City Council to determine how the process will work to be fair. “We want to make sure the decision made is known to the public,” Lochner said.

Once the LMC has finished reviewing the ordinance, it may go back to the Planning Commission for changes, or it may pass muster and head to the City Council.

At that point, the Council will set a date for a public hearing. “We want public input,” said Lochner.

The Council will make its decision and once the ordinance is approved, enforcement must begin.

“If this ordinance is adopted, it will be illegal to post a garage sale sign outside of your yard,” Lochner said using an example.

To enforce the ordinance, he said the scenario may be staff picking up a garage sale sign in violation, taking a photo of the sign with date and time stamp and showing the person responsible. For a second violation, a citation may be issued and for a third violation, the resident could be charged with a misdemeanor offense.

That however may be a month or two away, as the proper procedure takes time.

A new ordinance will not take effect until after a public hearing, formal approval by the City Council and then 10 days after it has been published.

Little Falls City Council Briefs

In other business at Monday’s meeting, the Little Falls City Council:

• Heard a proposal during its work session from City Engineer Don Erickson to use state aid funds to replace a number of the city’s 200 street lights and poles with taller poles that include low emitting diode (LED) bulbs to save the city money;

• Approved the purchase of a new lawn tractor for the city through John Deere Company, Cary, N.Y., at a cost of $30,709.72, with money to come from the city’s equipment fund. It will replace a 1974 model the city currently has;

• Approved the plans and specifications and a call for bids for the utility extension on Third Avenue Southeast between 18th Street Southeast and 200 feet east of 18th Street;

• Voted 7-1 not to allow an advertising park bench to be erected in front of City Hall as requested by Jeff and Michelle Waldvogel of JMR2 Investments Inc. and Robin Hensel. Brian-Paul Crowder was the lone “yes” vote;

• Renewed the contract for services for a liaison police officer at Little Falls schools for the 2012-13 and 2012-14 school years. The Little Falls School District will pay $25,000 for the 2012-13 school year and $26,000 for the 2013-14 school year;

• Approved the removal of the old ambulance garage located at 13 First Avenue Southeast to make way for green space and sidewalks near the Mississippi River dam. Mike Roach, developer of the Waters Edge Business Park (WEBP), a proposed office complex near Wood Street and First Avenue, has agreed to level off the area to enhance the future park area near the dam;

• Approved a drainage and ingress/egress easement agreement with Mike Roach for the WEBP proposed development to be constructed near the intersection of Wood Street and First Avenue Southeast, which is zoned a general business district (B2). In return for the easement, he will demolish the storage garage on Lot 19; construct a new storage garage near Lot 4, which will be owned by the city and a portion of which will be used by WEBP; remove bituminous surfacing on the city’s portion of the vacated alley and around the former ambulance garage; shape, furnish and install fill and black dirt on Lots 14 – 19; and install storm water holding pond on Lot 20 with shrubbery;

• Approved the hiring of Judy Olson-Wells as cook at the Little Falls Golf Course, at $10.01 per hour, and Madeline Pekarek and Jodi Davis as clubhouse attendants at a rate of $8.13 per hour;

• Authorized the vacation of the alleyway in Block 16, Rothwell’s Addition; and

• Authorized the participation of part-time patrol officer Joshua Andrea in the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA).

The Little Falls City Council’s next meeting will be held Monday, May 7, at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.

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