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A Tale of Two Cities

Long Beach, Sacramento demonstrate divergent signage attitudes



They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, the “beholders,” in this case city-planning and code-administration officials, should, wherever their geography, should have the common goal of protecting the interest of local businesses, and overall economic growth.

Thus, it was curious to see the divergent attitudes taken by local officials in Sacramento in Long Beach with respect to local ordinances. Beginning on a more positive note, Long Beach planners will, if an expected second reading of a new ordinance gains approval within later this month, enact a new sign code for the first time in approximately 40 years. According to Jeff Winklepleck, a planner in the city’s department of development services, said the new code corrects numerous ambiguities and discrepancies that existed in the prior regulations.

The proposed ordinance strongly encourages owners of new businesses – existing signs will be grandfathered, and historic-district signs entail different standards – to incorporate 3-D signs instead of flat-face or cabinet signs. When cabinet signs are installed, the new code requires push-through, 3-D letters. The amount of supplemental text on flat-cabinet or can signage will be restricted. The code also creates a review process that gives otherwise noncompliant signs the opportunity to gain approval in a more efficient way than a conventional variance process.

Winklepleck cited the example of Nick’s on 2nd, a restaurant in the city’s Belmont Shore neighborhood, which was granted a variance to install a blade sign that projects onto the building’s rooftop. City officials explained the ordinance proposal to a July meeting of the 4th St. Business Assn., and Winklepeck said the proposal was “well received.” It was also endorsed at a recent Long Beach Council of Business Associations meeting.
“I saw some lights go on in people’s eyes,” he said. “If you own a business, and you put up a good sign, and your neighbor puts up a poor one, it takes away from the work you’ve done. A couple of bad signs can really start to give a building, and a neighborhood, a deteriorating appearance. When they’re done well, signs can build the character of a neighborhood, especially if they reinforce a building’s architecture.”
Superior Electrical Advertising and TDI Signs, both of Long Beach, consulted with the city on the ordinance’s development. Although not every aspect of signage emerged victorious – restrictions were placed on inflatable signage and flat-cabinet signs , and only 3 sq. ft. of a sign may be devoted to the business’ contact information, for instance – but it represents an aggressive to make signs a point of civic pride.

Conversely, approximately 400 miles north, Sacramento has taken a draconian stance against one local business’ sign program. Carl and Elizabeth Fears, the owners of Got Muscle, a gym located in the Sacramento community of Rosemont, set out a sandwich-board sign to help advertise their business. Although Sacramento allows A-frames for political candidates, real-estate advertising and nonprofit-organization promotions, it doesn’t permit them for commercial businesses. City officials threatened the Fears with a $900-a-day fine. Unable to sustain such a penalty, the Fears removed the sign.

Fortunately, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a law firm that, among other specialties, advocates for commercial freedom of speech, heard of the Fears’ plight, interviewed them and took up their case. On August, IJ filed a lawsuit in a Sacramento district court. According to IJ, it may take more than a year for the case to be heard, and that the case being taken to the U.S. Supreme Court is a distinct possibility. IJ filed an injunction to allows the Fears to display the sign without penalty while the case is adjudicated, to which Sacramento officials promptly agreed. Also, the city claims it will reform its sign code. For more of the story, click here.


There’s never any shortage of news about municipal sign codes, but these case in point show that one city can create a new ordinance that, although imperfect, embraces signage as a resource for economic growth, and another seemingly treats sign with contempt. Let’s hope the sign industry prevails in both cases.



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