Champlin puts hold on new e-signs

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 28, 2012 - 3:08 PM

The city will spend six months reviewing emerging sign technologies and other cities' ordinances for digital signs.

Wanting to avoid a cityscape dominated by flashing electronic notices, the Champlin City Council has approved a six-month moratorium on new electronic signs in the city.

"They didn't want Champlin to become the Vegas strip," said City Planner Scott Schulte. The six months, he said, will give the city time to review its existing ordinances, assess new technology and examine other cities' ordinances.

The moratorium, which was passed last week, affects signs that are self-illuminated. Most of those that already are installed in the city use electronic lights to spell out or scroll a message. None use graphics, and animation already is prohibited.

In 2007, the city added language to the city code covering electronic signs, specifying the allowed size, brightness, location and message duration. It was updated in 2008 to require applicants to get a conditional-use permit, which moved the approval process from the planner's office to the City Council. It also gave the city improved enforcement ability, Schulte said.

Since then, the city has granted permits for four electronic signs, bringing the total to about a dozen. No applications have been denied, Schulte said.

The moratorium came as the city reviewed an application for a sign that would be part of a large pylon sign shared by two other tenants of the same development. The applicant, Excel Pawn & Jewelry, applied for a permit to install a digital sign that would account for 40 percent of the 100-square-foot signage space, which it shares with two other tenants. The ordinance allows for electronic signs to take 40 percent of total signage space, but the question was whether one user of a shared sign can take that whole 40 percent, Schulte said.

Excel's co-owner, Mark Pearson, declined to be interviewed for this story.

His business was affected last summer, when the city moved last year to restrict use of "sign walkers," people who walk up and down the sides of busy streets carrying signs that advertise business specials, hours and other information that may not be on their permanent signage. In that case, city officials cited concerns about driver distraction and the safety of the walkers, who often worked close to traffic whizzing by at 60 miles per hour on Hwy. 169, the city's main commercial strip.

In this case, interviews with city staff and a review of documents to the City Council indicate that driver concerns are one factor, but there's also a strong regard for the city's aesthetics, especially as technology improves and officials expect more applications for increasingly sophisticated signs.

"It's been five years since the ordinance was approved," Schulte said. "Market demand is still there and the technology has also improved and changed. We wanted to take an opportunity to evaluate and find out what our neighbors are doing."

Schulte said he foresees one of two possible outcomes: Either the City Council will recognize the signs' growing popularity in the business community and will relax some of its current restrictions, or it will decide there already are enough of them and extend the moratorium.

"If they are concerned there are too many, they may want to turn the spigot off," he said.

Though the moratorium is set to extend into January, Schulte said he expects to have a report to the council by this fall.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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