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New sign ordinance put to the test
Planning approves Hauck’s neon sign
Hauck's sign
A historic neon sign for Hauck’s Grill was approved by the Planning Commission on Thursday (Photo contributed).

The City of Turlock’s new sign ordinance was put on full display Thursday when the Planning Commission considered two proposals.

After seven years in the making, the Turlock City Council adopted an updated sign ordinance in December 2017 that reshaped the City’s regulatory framework into a defined and streamlined structure aimed at making it easier — for businesses in particular — to know what kind of signage is permitted within the City of Turlock. The new ordinance also clarified when a variance — or exception — could be made for individual signs.

On Thursday, Planning Commissioners used the new sign ordinance to consider two separate petitions for an exception from the regulations.

The first petitioner was Amin Salki, a developer who was considering purchasing property that has long sat vacant off Fulkerth Road on the southeast corner of the Highway 99 exchange. The property is bound on the west by the freeway and the south and east are single-family homes.

Salki is considering purchasing three parcels of land that make up the site from the Paul family trust. He said he plans to build a gas station on the property and wants an 85-foot tall pylon sign advertising the stop that could be seen by travelers on nearby Highway 99.

Salki requested a variance from the regulations that only allows freeway-oriented pylon signs for retail sign districts of 20 acres or more with a minimum freeway frontage of 1,000 feet. The proposed sign district area covers approximately 4.49 acres and has 500 feet of frontage on the freeway. The developer also requested larger square footage of sign area per side of the pylon sign than the regulations allow.

Former Mayor John Lazar, who is the real estate agent representing the Paul family, spoke in favor of the Commission allowing the variance.

“The Paul family wants to see this property sell. They’ve had it a long time and they’ve worked with the buyer…,” said Lazar.

Denise Soares, a resident of Countryside Drive whose property abuts the site of the proposed gas station and corresponding pylon sign, said she couldn’t imagine living with that large of a lit sign in her back yard.

“I know the Pauls, known them a long time, and I know they want to sell the property which is fine it’s commercial property over there. But we’re residents on this one side and a pylon sign 85-feet tall, that would light up our whole back yard,” said Soares.

The Commission discussed the details of the request and asked about nearby pylon signs and their sizes. In the end, they voted to disapprove the variance because it would constitute a special privilege not granted to similar properties and set a precedent that could create a proliferation of signs along the freeway Turlock has historically worked hard to prohibit.

“I am definitely in favor of developing that property. I’ve bought Christmas trees there for years and always thought there would be a better use for that property. But I think we have to be mindful of the neighbors that would have to live with this sign 24/7,” said Commissioner Jim Reape. “And the one of the things I appreciated about California when I moved here almost 30 years ago was that signs were by and large tastefully done and you weren’t looking at signs for two miles before you got to the exit, clogging up the whole county. In many states it’s not like that.”

Other Commissioners agreed with Reape that the request was a large departure from what is laid out in the sign ordinance standards.

“There’s been years, literally, in putting the sign ordinance together and finally getting it adopted. And so, without clear, definitive explanation of needing the variance, it goes against everything we spent years creating. I say we just stay with our standards,” said Commissioner Geoff Powers.

The second applicant to petition the Planning Commission on Thursday was Hauck’s Grill.

The downtown restaurant was seeking a variance from the sign standards which limits projecting signs from extending more than six and half feet into the public right-of-way and how the sign has to be illuminated.

Hauck’s proposed installing a neon sign that would be attached to the corner of the building, located at Main Street and Broadway. The sign would be attached 17 feet from the sidewalk and would extend seven and half feet into the public right-of-way.

This is the second time Hauck’s has requested a variance to install a neon sign. In 2016, Hauck’s was denied a Conditional Use Permit to install a sign that would have projected 93 inches into the right-of-way. The sign proposed on Thursday will project 90 inches into the right-of-way. The previous request was considered under the old sign ordinance which limited projecting signs in the Downtown Core area to two feet by two feet in size.

Along with requesting 12 inches in additional sign space over the right-of-way, Hauck’s also proposed a neon-lit sign. Under the Downtown Core Design Guidelines, signs must be externally illuminated with concealed direct lighting.

Hauck’s argued that their proposed sign would harken back to a historic time in downtown Turlock — falling under the new sign ordinance’s allowance for signs that are “iconic” — and the restaurant’s location puts it in a special circumstance that warrants an exception to the six and half feet allowed into the right-of-way.

Hauck’s sign designer Scott Helia gave a detailed presentation to the Commission that showed because the restaurant sits on a corner that has an extended or bulbed out sidewalk, which was created to allow for a more pedestrian-friendly walkway, the distance of the projected sign to the curb is actually much farther than the two feet by two feet signs allowed adjacent to the restaurant.

The seven and half feet of signage would also fall short of the canopy, which current extends 10 feet into the public right-of-way.

The owner of the restaurant, Tom Gallo, said he originally decided to open a restaurant in Turlock because he was asked to come be a part of the downtown area’s resurgence.

“We set out to create something unique. We didn’t set out to break any rules about signage,” said Gallo, who also owns the popular downtown Modesto restaurant Galletto Ristorante.

After discussing the circumstances of the restaurant’s location, the Commission voted unanimously to approve the variance.

“I find the design tasteful and I think our downtown is visually interesting, partly because of the signage we have in our Downtown Core. I think the spirit of our sign ordinance needs to be looked at in addition to the strict interpretation,” said Commissioner Reape.

The other Commissioners agreed with Reape’s assessment that the Hauck’s sign was in alignment with the “spirit” of the sign ordinance.

“I am a self-proclaimed rule follower and I like to do things to the letter of the law. But the way this sign is proposed, I think there are a number of perspective issues that come into play: the 45-degree angle, the bulb-out of the sidewalk, the additional height — I think if this sign was posted at the 8-foot minimum, it shows a different scale than the 17-foot height. And while we need to maintain the visual aesthetics of the downtown area, I don’t know that this one-foot difference is going to necessarily deter from that. I certainly want to uphold the time and consideration that was put into creating the sign ordinance, but I think there may be room for exception there,” said Commissioner Constance Anderson.