Little Falls City Council approves sign ordinance

Amendments will be forthcoming to address concerns of residents

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
[email protected]

The city of Little Falls has a new sign ordinance, as Monday, the Little Falls City Council voted unanimously to approve the 10th draft of a  strict sign ordinance, with the intent to make amendments later.

The amendments will most likely have to do with garage sale signs posted on others’ property for a short time, sandwich boards hailing a farmers market nearby, or temporary event signs.

Although the new version isn’t much different than the former version, in fact it allows more square footage of signs in the residential area, the city has promised to enforce it, something it has not always done in the past.

Several residents voiced their issues with the changes in the new sign ordinance during the Planning Commission’s public hearing held before the Council meeting.

The concerns were due to the inability to post signs advertising a garage sale, or a farmers’ market, or in some cases a business.

Others had issue with the fact that the city was trying to regulate signage at all.

Once a business owner and homeowner, Mary Ann Susalski told the Planning Commission she lost both her business and home during the economic downturn.

She moved to Little Falls and these days, Susalski said, she holds garage sales. Without the ability to post signs outside her own yard, her fear is no one will find her garage sale.

“One sign in front of your house won’t cut it,” she said.

“I just want to know how and what I can do to continue to have my sales during the summer,” she said. “I’m on Social Security and I need income from these sales, not that I’m going to get rich — no way — but I still need to continue doing what I’m doing or I might lose a second house.”

Susalski also wanted to know who would “regulate” the new ordinance. She had driven around town over the weekend and said signs were up for a horse show, auctions, lots of graduation parties and open houses.

“Who’s going to take them all down?” she asked. “My rights are just as important as somebody going to a horse show. We all have rights and if I have to give up what I am trying to hang on to — then nobody else should be able to infringe on my rights either and put their signs out.”

Gigi Dambowy, manager of the Morrison County Little Falls Farmers Market, which sets up in Zoomski’s Midtown Cafe on Broadway  East in Little Falls, said she couldn’t find language in the ordinance about signs for the farmers market.

There isn’t any —yet. That will be one of the amendments to be added at a later date, Dambowy was told.

Cathy Czech from Flensburg, who sells at the farmers market, said, “The signs mean an awful lot to me. Without that sign, I could just as well quit … I depend on the farmers market and those signs for my living.”

Greg Zylka, an investor in Zylka’s Red Bull Bar on First Street, first commended the Planning Commission for its work on the ordinance. Zylka said he felt personally the Planning Commission and Council were working to come up with an ordinance that fit the community best.

However, Zylka said he was concerned with how the ordinance would affect this small business and others.

“I don’t want the next sign we put up to be a ‘Going out of Business’ sign,” he said.

Robin Hensel, a Little Falls resident, introduced herself as the “town crier.” She  is currently suing the city over the constitutionality of its previous sign ordinance as well as for discrimination because she was asked to take down signs in her yard, while others she found in violation remained.

Hensel asked several questions. One was directed to “everyone here that’s in charge.”

“How do signs on one’s own curtilage (property) pertaining to idea speech, possibly threaten the health, safety and welfare of the community?” she asked.

Her questions went unanswered, since it was the portion of the public hearing during which people were to state their stance for or against the ordinance and give their reasons.

Pete McDuffy questioned whether what the residents had to say would make a difference.

“Are we really going to have influence on what is decided? Or have you already decided the ordinance?” he asked. “I happen to believe in the right of people doing what they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt other people … We all have to realize you lose your freedoms, not all at once, but piece by piece. If we don’t start listening to each other, we are going to be in trouble.”

Resident Theresa Skorseth wanted to recap events leading to the revamping of the sign ordinance at this time.

She accused the city of pushing a private citizen (Hensel) around “Just as far as I could tell to flex its muscle” with an ordinance that was “complaint driven,” she said.

Skorseth said “complaint driven” meant if the city would only enforce the ordinance if someone complained.

“So if they like you, is my guess, nobody complains and you’re free to do what you like,” she said. “If they don’t like you for some reason, then they say somebody complained and send a policeman to your door, which is what happened to Robin.”

Since the name of a complainant is not made public, Skorseth said she felt that no one complained, but suggested it may be one of the Council or Planning Commission members present.

Skorseth pointed out that developing the new ordinance was costly. “By the way, this doesn’t come cheap. Lots of man hours — paid man hours — went into developing this ordinance,” she said. “And who’s paying for this? You are.”

“This is the quintessential American way,” Skorseth said. “The arrogance of politics to manhandle its citizens and citizens fighting back. This is where this all started.”

“I think Thomas Jefferson said, ‘The people should not be afraid of their government; the government should be afraid of the people,’” said Skorseth.

Any place in the country this principle is not upheld, she called, “A travesty of the American founders’ vision.”

The only thing missing the night of the public hearing, said Skorseth, “Is the small army that ought to be behind Robin Hensel; the small army of citizens adding their voices to the protest.”

Three letters were written against the proposed ordinance as well.

One, from Becky Olson, said, “I respectfully ask our City Council to please consider how much common sense most residents use and trust us to use good judgement. For those who don’t implement a penalty — but the penalty doesn’t need to be such an extreme ordinance as to strangle the efforts of families, nonprofits and reputable businesses as they try to make it in such already tough ecnomic times.”

Before voting Council Member Brian-Paul Crowder said he was concerned about nonprofits and would vote yes reluctantly, “With the assurance the staff and city attorney will work on amendments to help nonprofits have proper signage,” he said.

Council Member Frank Gosiak echoed those sentiments  and said he believed the Planning Commission would take the recommendations and continue to work on the ordinance.

“This ordinance is in place and it might be a little rigid and strict at first for the sake of being the protection of the people of the community, financially,” said Gosiak. “I think this is the way to go and it can be adjusted later.”

Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem commended the Planning Commission on its work as did Council Member Don Klinker.

“We have been working on it for about five years,” said VanRisseghem. “We will move forward on this at a later date and get some of these issues taken care of.”

The new sign ordinance will take effect seven days after it is published in the July 8 issue of the Morrison County Record. A short summary version of the ordinance is in this week’s (July 8) print issue. Click on link to view a PDF of the ordinance —  LF sign ordinance draft 10

Little Falls City Council Briefs

In other business Monday, the Little Falls City Council:

• Approved the replacement of a non-working heating and air conditioning unit at the Police Department. The unit was replaced by Home Furnace Company in Little Falls, at a cost of $6,600, which included replacing some of the duct work;

• Approved ordinance 43, a summary of ordinance 42 for publication;

• Awarded bids for sewer and water improvements approved earlier this year on Third Avenue Southeast as requested by Faith Lutheran Church. The area is located south of the former Walmart building in East Little Falls. Bids were awarded to HD Supply Waterworks of Eden Prairie at a cost of $16,532.84; to County Materials Corporation of Roberts, Wis. for concrete equipment at a cost of $1,643.40 and to Eagle Construction of Little Falls for backhoe and operator work at a cost of $80.00 per hour;

•  Accepted a change order from J.R. Ferche Inc. for a decrease in the cost of 16-inch PVC watermain pipe on the 18th Street Northeast project;

• Voted unanimously to appoint election judges presented for the Aug. 13 primary election and the Nov. 6 general election; and

• Set Monday, July 9, at 6:30 p.m. as the date and time for a public hearing before the Planning Commission, regarding a conditional use request to allow auto wrecking or salvage yard, junk yard, used auto parts and similar uses on a property located on Lot 7, Block 1, Yoerg’s Subdivision in Little Falls.

The next regular meeting for the Little Falls City Council will be held Monday, July 16, at 7:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall. The Council’s work session will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the conference room.