By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
Riitters Thompson & Olson PA (RTO) moved its offices in May from downtown Little Falls to a new location behind (west) the Little Falls Radio Station on Haven Road. The business has no access to it from the road, but shares a driveway with the radio station. Being behind the station, the building is not visible from the road.
However, because of the Little Falls city sign ordinance, the business cannot place a sign on Haven Road, because the business doesn’t own the property and it would be considered an off-premise sign, and as such, a violation of the city’s sign ordinance.
RTO asked the Little Falls City Council whether the sign ordinance could be amended to allow off-premise signs, so it could place a directional sign on Haven Road letting people know where their office was.
Public Works Director Greg Kimman told the Council the property was landlocked with RTO using an easement through the Little Falls Radio property, but they don’t own it.
Kimman said the subdivision was created when the area was still in the Belle Prairie Township. The situation was unique, he said.
“It wouldn’t have happened if it (the subdivision) were in the city,” he said, because it doesn’t have road frontage.
Rocky Thompson, one of the owners of RTO, indicated Little Falls Radio was in the process of erecting a new sign, and was open to discussing permission to add the Riitters Thompson & Olson PA sign.
“It’s a directional sign, not promotional sign,” she said, adding it was time-sensitive since the sign would be put up in the next two weeks.
Thompson said the business had been in the location for six weeks and clients were not able to find it. She added it was a seasonal business, with clients coming from December through April only.
“We’ve made a significant investment in the community,” she said, saying it had been in business for 36 years. The business just wanted its clients to be able to find the new office.
Council Member Greg Zylka said he’d brought the issue up a while ago. “My concern has always been are we hampering business,” he said. “I was also told this is still in litigation at this time and we’ve been instructed to walk very softly.”
City Attorney Toni Wetzel said she had talked to Paul Reuvers, the attorney who handled the lawsuit involving the city and Robin Hensel, because “this keeps rearing its head.”
A settlement had been reached in the lawsuit, with Hensel being awarded damages and given the go-ahead to have a bench put up at City Hall.
The parties will be meet before a magistrate judge July 23 in Duluth to discuss where things are with the case, Reuvers said. If necessary, the court has set a new hearing date of Aug. 21 in Duluth to hear arguments on the motions related to the agreement.
However, after her conversation with Reuvers that day, she said, “We’re still actively involved in litigation, it’s not settled, it’s being contested now. We don’t know how much longer this is going to be.”
Wetzel said Reuvers’ recommendation at this point was “to leave it as it is,” she said.
She said even after it is settled, if the city chose to look at doing something with off-premise signage, there wouldn’t be an easy fix and that it wouldn’t be an inexpensive, quick process.
Thompson said the business was simply looking for directional signs, not advertising.
“I wish I had a fix for you, but at this point in time the guy that’s handling this case has flat-out said, we need to leave this as is. We are not done with litigation on this.”
There is no way for the city to grant a variance or a temporary permit for a sign, either, Wetzel told Thompson.
“This sounds crazy, but I’m going to ask any way,” said Council Member Brian-Paul Crowder. “What if the city ever decided to throw it out, once litigation is over with.”
“To throw it out completely, I don’t know,” said Wetzel. “I’d have to check with Paul on that.
Crowder asked her to check.
“For all the headaches and the expense of the whole community, I would just like to see the whole thing thrown out,” said Crowder.
Wetzel said if the entire Council wanted her to follow up on it, she would, but didn’t know if that would be the reasonable thing.
“The quick answer is, you don’t need to have a sign ordinance at all,” said Wetzel. “You’re not required to and don’t need it. Whether Paul would recommend now getting rid of it in the middle of litigation. I don’t know what the Council wants me to follow up with that again.”
Wetzel said she’d be happy to contact Reuvers, but noted that if she did, the city would be double-billed — a bill from her and a bill from him.
“I would like to know that answer and I think if we’re a pro-business town, we should look into it for our business community,” Crowder said.
“You’ve got to realize that involves a lot of stuff,” said Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem. “Any building in town could have as many signs on their building as they wanted, toe to toe, nail to nail. With no sign ordinance, absolutely anything will go,” she said.
As far as changing anything in the ordinance for off-premise signs, Wetzel said, “With everything we had to address, don’t think it would be an easy fix in any way, shape or form and it might make it more complicated.”
She said it would be a comprehensive change if that’s something the city should choose to do.
Thompson asked several hypothetical questions regarding signs, all ideas would be a violation of the sign ordinance.
“It’s a tough one,” said Klinker.
Reuvers said the magistrate judge ordered the parties in the Hensel vs. city lawsuit settlement to meet before him July 23 in Duluth to discuss where things are. If necessary, the court has set Aug. 21 as a new hearing date in Duluth to hear arguments on motions related to the settlement agreement.