West St. Paul's resolve to beautify Robert Street -- its busy main drag -- was tested last week when the popular Leeann Chin restaurant chain pushed for an exception to the city's sign ordinance.
City Council members unanimously rejected the larger sign the restaurant wanted, but three members were ready to allow the restaurant's sign to vary from the classic stone, brick and stucco materials required by the ordinance.
In the end, Council Members Darlene Lewis and David Wright insisted that the new ordinance be upheld, and three votes were not enough to grant the variance.
"This is a principle issue," Wright said. "If we start giving variances on these signs, then we might as well not even have written the ordinance."
To give the hodgepodge business zone along Robert Street a classier, less cluttered look, the city adopted an ordinance in 2006 that requires businesses to put up monument signs made of brick, stone, stucco or concrete masonry that are no more than 10 feet high and no more than 50 square feet in size.
The city designed the ordinance to eliminate big signs held aloft on poles in favor of lower-to-the-ground, more dignified-looking monument signs, Lewis said. Changing signage is part of a larger ongoing effort to redo Robert Street to improve its look as well as its safety for drivers and pedestrians, she said.
"We spent a lot of time on putting that ordinance in place, and when we start deviating from it we set a precedent and the next person comes in and they can change it a little more, and pretty soon we are way away from our ordinance."
Leeann Chin -- which recently opened at 1733 S. Robert St., in a location formerly occupied by the short-lived CiCi's Pizza -- proposed a 96-square-foot sign, nearly double the size allowed and made not of stone and brick but painted aluminum.
Representatives of the chain argued that they needed the bigger sign because the restaurant is set back from the busy street with a parking lot in front, not in the line of sight of drivers.
"A restaurant such as Leeann Chin relies 50 percent on impulse decisions to attract new customers," said Steve Hirtz, vice president of the Nordquist Sign Company, speaking on behalf of the restaurant before the City Council.
Hirtz also argued that the sign had to be bigger because the building is shared by a second tenant that needs equal identification on the sign.
He asked for a variance from the materials required by the ordinance so he could reuse the footings from an old sign used by CiCi's to save money.
City staffers said it found nothing unique about the property to justify the variance and recommended that it be denied.
If new footings must be put in for the sign to meet the requirements, then Leeann Chin would have to do that and "the cost to do so cannot justify the need for a variance," Community Development Director Jim Hartshorn said.
The sign regulations "were not only enacted to clean up the clutter on Robert Street but also to improve aesthetics," he said.
The city's committee of adjustments followed Hartshorn's advice and voted 6-0 to turn down the request.
Leeann Chinn appealed that decision to the City Council -- this time paring down the size of the sign from 96 square feet to 70 and proposing a painted stucco finish on an aluminum base.
Council members unanimously said no to the size, but three tried to find a way to accommodate the restaurant by bending on the sign materials.
Council Member Ed Iago said the chain's restaurants are typically in good repair and he thought the city could trust the company to keep the sign well cared for if the variance on materials were granted. Council Members Ed Hansen and Tony Vitelli also were willing to give the firm the variance.
When Wright and Lewis voted to deny the variance, Mayor John Zanmiller suggested the restaurant talk further with Hartshorn about how to meet the code.
Laurie Blake 952-746-3287