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Sign wars: City says enough; businesses cry for more

POSTED June 8, 2012 8:28 p.m.

The ongoing effort to revamp Turlock’s sign ordinance has Planning Commissioners questioning the role of sometimes-distracting and unattractive sign twirlers and feather signs, while business owners say the marketing tools are necessary to make ends meet in the down economy.

Both sides agree the city needs to rewrite the ordinance, last updated in 1944. The document’s strict restrictions on signage and confusing language make what should be an easy process into a laborious one.

And the role of signage in 1944 was worlds apart from today, as businesses struggle to be noticed in a global economy where shoppers often turn to the Internet.

“This economy is causing every city to go back and rethink their sign regulations,” said Debbie Whitmore, deputy director of Development Services for the City of Turlock.

The rethinking has been spurred by businesses pushing the envelope in terms of signage, in hopes of surviving the recession.

“When things got really tight for our businesses, especially retail, they started reaching out and doing different things to get people into their businesses,” Turlock Chamber CEO Sharon Silva said.

That led to a proliferation of feather signs – those leaf-shaped custom flags – and costumed people waving signs at passing vehicles. But both of those sign types are currently illegal under Turlock’s sign ordinance.

For the past two years, the Turlock Chamber of Commerce has held a series of meetings with business owners to both raise awareness of the current sign ordinance, and to obtain feedback on modifying the ordinance. Throughout those meetings, businesses called for flexible, easy to understand rules – and the legalization of feather and human signs.

“So the business community is thinking Mr. Pickles is acceptable?” Planning Commission Chairman Mike Brem asked. “... I think the community perspective is that this is not acceptable."

But the sign types are essential to small businesses, according to Don Fernandes, owner of Vail Creek Jewelry Designs. Fernandes said that when he employs a sign twirler, his business surges 10 to 50 percent.

“It is bringing a significant income to our business,” Fernandes said. “It’s real nice to look all pretty, but only if you want to cut another 10 businesses out of the district.”

Fernandes also said it’s harder for small businesses to advertise traditionally these days, competing against branded corporate juggernauts able to heavily outspend smaller competitors. He said businesses have to turn to unconventional approaches like sign twirlers to bring in customers.

Whitmore noted that one of the goals of the sign ordinance is to set a level playing field for businesses, where all businesses have access to the same promotional methods. That way some businesses don’t gain an unfair advantage by not complying with the rules.

Ultimately, it’s the role of the Planning Commission to balance the needs of the business community against those of Turlock at large.

Planning staff is expected to return to the commission with several options to streamline the sign ordinance, creating a flexible-yet-understandable document. How that final sign ordinance will address feather and human signs remains uncertain.

“We want to do it in a way that supports business and doesn't drive it away, but we don't want to do it in a way that impacts the aesthetics of the community,” Brem said.

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