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A sign of the times

City streets cluttered with unlicensed banners

A sign of the times

The City of Turlock is cracking down on unpermitted signs, like the sail signs pictured above.


POSTED August 3, 2010 10:51 p.m.
With a quick drive down Golden State Boulevard, Geer Road, or Monte Vista Avenue, the issue becomes crystal clear: the streets of Turlock are overflowing with unlicensed signs.Across the country, from Mesa, Ariz. to Forest Grove, Ore. and Los Angeles, municipalities are trying to stem the proliferation of unlicensed signs. The trend has been driven by businesses’ needs to attract more customers, erecting flashy illegal signs to garner the attention of those driving by.The City of Turlock is just the most recent city to take a stand against these unlawful signs, hoping to cut down on the clutter, level the playing field for businesses, and improve safety.“It’s a common problem,” said Turlock Planning Manager Debbie Whitmore. “We know with the economy being the way it is, everybody is desperate to get the word out.”The city understands the need for signs, Whitmore said, but wants businesses to know there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about posting them. “We want to keep it consistent between different businesses so everyone has a chance to be successful,” Whitmore said.As businesses fight for more customers, they oftentimes turn to banners, flags, and temporary signs. But, in doing so, businesses obstruct the permanent, licensed signs that are already there, Whitmore said.Business who comply with the City of Turlock’s sign ordinances are left at a competitive disadvantage. The whole point of Turlock’s sign ordinance — to create a level playing field for all businesses through a comprehensive set of rules — is circumvented.Additionally, the signs reduce traffic safety by obscuring vision and distracting drivers. They also get in the way of people using sidewalks.Perhaps most importantly, though, they’re not attractive, Whitmore said.Business and shoppers are attracted to Turlock because it’s a pleasant place to shop. Since Turlock enacted its first sign regulations in 1943, the city has used the guidelines to create a welcoming atmosphere, protecting property values.Fortunately for businesses, the permitting process to make signs legal isn’t too onerous. “It’s pretty straightforward,” said Turlock Senior Planner Rose Stillo.Applicants must complete and submit a one-page form before erecting a sign. The City of Turlock then reviews the proposed sign based on its size and location.Different zoning areas allow for different sorts of signs. Those in retail districts can post massive signs, office districts offer some limited wayfinding signs, and signs are nearly banned in residential areas.Zoning areas also have different design standards as to what signs are acceptable.Most of Turlock requires signs low in profile, not obstructing the existing architecture. The Downtown Core allows for A-frame street signs — though an ADA-compliant walkway must be maintained — while most others ban sidewalk signs. But downtown has its own drawbacks when it comes to signs, disallowing internally illuminated signs on building walls.It’s important to see what signs are allowed before you move in, Stillo said, as some sites just don’t have the sort of signage options that business owners want.Regardless of the area, banners, feather or sail signs, and signs of any temporary nature still need a permit. Those temporary sign permits allow the signs to stand for no more than 60 days, though.So-called “snipe signs” — those fliers posted to telephone poles around town — are completely illegal, despite the city removing about 300 monthly.Businesses interested in building illuminated signs, freestanding signs larger than six feet in height, or structures necessitating engineered plans also require a building permit, which is processed at the same time as the sign permit application.Ballpark, permitting an unlighted sign costs about $95 and can be completed in less than a week, Stillo said. Illuminated signs are closer to $225, with a 10 to 14 day approval time.There are some exemptions to Turlock’s sign ordinance. All window decals are exempt from permitting, as are magnetic signs attached to vehicles.In the past, enforcing these guidelines was largely complaint driven, according to Turlock Police Capt. Rob Jackson. But recently, the department has been receiving so many complaints that they can no longer pick and choose.Enforcement is an expensive endeavor; usually costing more than is generated by fines, but the problem has gotten so out of hand that ignoring the problem isn’t an option.“Our main goal isn’t to fine people and make revenues, it’s compliance,” Jackson said.The police will work with businesses, Jackson said, asking them to take down unlawful signs and explaining the business-friendly aim of the sign ordinance. They will tell businesses about alternative means of getting the word out, like advertising and the aforementioned window decals and magnetic vehicle signs.Most comply, Jackson said, but the city will pursue court orders against those who refuse.“We’re prepared to do it,” Jackson said. “This is a serious issue that is coming to the forefront of our community.“We don’t want people to start saying, ‘Gosh, did you see all those signs in Turlock?’”For more information, contact the City of Turlock Development Services Department at 668-5640. A pamphlet on sign guidelines is available from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday  at the Development Services counter in City Hall, 156 S. Broadway.To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.
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