Can a Wal-Mart hide from its customers? In Shakopee, the answer is an emphatic “yes,” according to business boosters who are asking the city to loosen sign regulations they consider far too restrictive.

“We were hearing from local businesses that were very frustrated by the limitations,” said Angie Whitcomb, president of the Shakopee Chamber & Visitors Bureau. Their complaints echo those made two years ago by Brad Tabke, a former chamber officer, during his successful campaign for mayor, and the city’s Planning Commission recently discussed allowing more, bigger and taller signs.

Shakopee is far from alone in taking a look at its sign laws. Across the metro area, cities are revisiting rules covering everything from electronic signs to sandwich boards, trying to balance the needs of businesses while not becoming what Barry Stock, city administrator in Savage, calls “an advertising mecca,” where signs become a community’s physical version of Internet spam.

While the Shakopee Chamber is concerned with signs throughout the city, one key focus is the commercial corridor along Hwy. 169, where Wal-Mart and other national retailers are clustered. About 65,000 vehicles travel the stretch daily, but it’s unlikely drivers would notice the sign with panels for Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Best Buy and a few other merchants. “It’s incredibly tiny,” Whitcomb said. The chamber says businesses along Hwy. 169 also have said current rules are too restrictive on sign height.

City officials plan to have a revised sign ordinance to present to the City Council this fall.

A question of fairness

Elsewhere, Champlin recently lifted a moratorium it had placed on new electronic signs while it determined how rules should apply to strip malls and other multitenant properties. “Our primary retail corridor, Hwy. 169, essentially splits our city down the middle. We’re very conscious of aesthetics for people driving through,” City Planner Scott Schulte said.

Creating a level playing field for businesses can be difficult in suburbs where some merchants are in newer outlying areas and others are in older, more traditional downtowns. Some residential neighborhoods rub shoulders with Shakopee’s historic downtown. “It may not be desirable to have one of those [electronic] signs facing your bedroom window,” Community Development Director Michael Leek said. The city modified its rules on electronic signs last year after discussions with the chamber.

Last fall, Lakeville relaxed rules to let more businesses use electronic signs but drew the line at animated signs. “A commissioner said that if he’s driving home from work, it could be useful to see that SuperAmerica has milk on sale, but he doesn’t need to see a milk jug dancing across a screen,” Planning Director Daryl Morey said.

This spring, the Eagan City Council discussed a variance for a nonelectronic sign at a small strip mall for 40 minutes before approving the minor change to increase its size. Todd Geller, whose company manages the Eagan Convenience Center, said he understands the council’s desire to avoid setting a precedent that could bring a parade of similar requests from other property owners.

Geller sought the change to accommodate a new merchant at the mall, which lost a major occupant and has been divided up for more, smaller tenants. “In this economy, signage to a retail tenant is huge,” he said.

Rules send chains away?

The concern is just as great with large-scale retail projects, where signs have to work around access roads, according to Mike Sims, a principal at the Minnesota office of Mid-America Real Estate Group. “Signage is always a topic of discussion with developers,” he said.

The Shakopee Chamber says developers had told the group some national chains weren’t interested in coming to the city because of its sign ordinance. Whitcomb declined to name the developers or merchants. Leek said he isn’t aware of any businesses making the comments directly to the city.

Sims, a veteran of the metro area’s retail market, said he had never heard of a deal not going through because of sign restrictions. He cited Maple Grove’s huge commercial district, Arbor Lakes, where the city limited signs along key access roads. “It hasn’t prevented development there at all,” he said.

Sims and others said sign issues have become complicated as more suburbs embrace development that combines businesses and high-density housing. In Edina, owners of townhouses near Centennial Lakes were able to get the city to prohibit signs facing their homes when the shopping center was built more than 20 years ago, City Planner Cary Teague said.

“The result was that all of those businesses turn their backs to the townhouses, and the people in them look at the backs of buildings,” Teague said. “There’s not a synergy between the two.” Residents and the city worked together to allow limited signs facing homes at a neighboring mall built later, Teague said.

“If we get it wrong, we hear from our businesses,” Eagan Mayor Mike Maguire said. Residents don’t usually give feedback on specific signs but make general comments, often comparing Eagan to other cities. “They might say, ‘Boy, I hope we never get like …,’ ” Maguire said.