Leon Worden




D-Day nears for SCV businesses

By Leon Worden
July 23, 1999

T
he end is near. In less than four months, over half of the businesses in Santa Clarita will have shelled out anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 to fix the problem, or they face possible fines from the city. No, we're not talking Y2K compliance. We're talking sign ordinance compliance, and it's mandatory about seven weeks before Y2K, on Nov. 13.
    The city's sign law regulates the size, shape, height, number and location of every sign in the city— except existing billboards, which are protected by state law. The City Council passed the ordinance in 1990 to "make Santa Clarita more attractive to residents, visitors, commercial, industrial and professional businesses while maintaining economic stability through an attractive sign program."
    In other words, "sign clutter" on Lyons, San Fernando and Soledad was starting to make Santa Clarita look like San Fernando Valley North.
    Was it right for the upstart city government— it was just 3 years old— to come along and decide that perfectly legal signs under the old county rules were now suddenly illegal? Yes, many said. The ability to make that kind of decision at the local level was precisely the reason Santa Claritans banded together to wrest control from the county in the first place.
    To be fair to business owners who needed time to save money to replace their signs, the council, at the urging of the chamber of commerce, gave business owners nine years to change their signs. In retrospect, the grace period did little more than give business owners 8 1/2 years to ignore the new law. Few businesses that were around in 1990 have replaced their signs, and I'm not sure many people have been stashing away money all these years to do so. (John Reardon at Valencia Bank & Trust says the response has been "light" to his offer of low-interest loans and high-interest savings accounts for sign replacement. He made the offer two years ago.)
    More business owners are becoming aware of the law as the deadline nears— I think. A recent chamber of commerce questionnaire revealed 26 percent of business owners surveyed never heard of the ordinance, and 52 percent said they never received anything about it from the city, even though a legion of city employees canvassed the city in April, knocking on almost every business door and leaving handouts.
    Sign maker Gerry Nass, owner of the local Sign-A-Rama franchise, says some customers are "starting to think seriously about it (and) place orders" for new signs, while Phil Harris, owner of VIP Signs, says the sign law is responsible for 30 to 40 percent of his business. But Nass says there is "a lot of uncertainty about how it will all come together." So many people have waited so long to do anything about their signs, he said, that the sign companies may not be able to get everything done by the deadline if every non-complying sign owner comes in at the last minute. Chances are, when Nov. 13 rolls around, the sun will be up and so will a lot of old signs. The chamber survey showed 24 percent of business owners disagreed with the need for the ordinance, and 22 percent expected to miss the deadline.
    The City Council can't unravel the sign ordinance, because it wouldn't be fair to businesses that opened or renovated after 1990. Since 1990, new businesses that might have liked to have a bigger sign couldn't.
    As the ordinance prepares to move from the "planning" phase to the "enforcement" phase, the city is destined for conflict with business owners who don't intend to comply. The city is never too comfortable throwing its weight around when it comes to code enforcement; this time it may have to.
    Planner Conal McNamara, the city's point man on signs, said his people will determine which of the 3,500 to 4,000 signs in the city will be illegal after Nov. 13— a number once estimated at 60 to 70 percent. Letters will go out to sign owners, giving them a certain number of days to bring signs into compliance, after which the city could levy fines and, possibly, haul the illegal signs away. McNamara hopes it won't come to that. He continues to work with shopping center owners on plans like the one recently approved for the Canyon Center in Canyon Country, where all non-conforming signs will come down in exchange for two signs at the street.
    In September, noted business consultant Kent Burnes will take up the issue when he visits Santa Clarita for three days of small business seminars. Among other things, McNamara said, Burnes will lecture on "how to survive without such a big sign, and how to get the most out of a (business location)."
    For details on the sign law, call McNamara at 255-4349.
    Leon Worden is The Signal's business editor.

    ©1999 LEON WORDEN — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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