Business

New sign regulations give Oak Harbor small businesses options

Sign rules in Island County that have been a headache for the business community for years got an overhaul this week.

Following a public hearing in Coupeville Tuesday, the Island County Commissioners adopted changes to the existing regulations in a split 2-1 vote. The decision wrapped up a revision effort that began with the planning commission early this year.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who is also chairwoman of the board, recognized that this had been a busy year for both the advisory group and county planning staff and congratulated them on their efforts.

“I’ve been hearing from businesses across the island about the need for cleaning this up,” she said.

Although the hearing was sparsely attended, with just three or four members of the public in the audience, planning department officials gave an overview of the revised regulations before their adoption by the board.

According to Senior Planner Brad Johnson, most of the changes were not necessarily sweeping but did go a long way toward making the rules more understandable for the business community.

“A lot of them were not really substantive so much as just reorganizing the code and clearing up some of the discrepancies,” Johnson said.

Planners created an easy-to-read table that contains all the maximum sizes and height restrictions for various industries — based on type and zoning location — while also overhauling a section of definitions.

Greater opportunity for signage was created for small businesses and provisions were created that allow directional signs for agricultural-based companies or organizations, Johnson said.

Also, rules that regulate signage for Camano Gateway Village were adopted for Freeland.

That was at the request of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce, which objected to the planning commission’s first draft of the rule changes.

Director Chet Ross was not at the meeting but he said in a later interview that the rules for gateway village would suffice until permanent and better fitting regulations for Freeland could be adopted in the future.

“We’re satisfied with this as a starting point,” Ross said.

During the meeting, Planning Director Bob Pederson told the board that much effort had been spent to address all of the most common public concerns, from the code’s lack of clarity to issues with height and size.

“We really tried to drill down on any issues that have come up over the years,” Pederson said.

Although Price Johnson and Commissioner Angie Homola made it clear they supported the rule changes, Commissioner Kelly Emerson said she believed more work needed to be done.

She said the rules still lacked the “flexibility” desired by the business community and suggested the whole package be sent back to the planning commission for additional review.

Emerson’s request saw little support from her fellow board members.

Price Johnson said it had already been through the process once and doing it again would mean a significant delay.

She did, however, say it’s not too late to make changes now and asked Emerson several times what amendments she would like to see added.

“If you can’t be specific, I’m not sure I can address your concern,” Price Johnson said.

Emerson said she could not do so, maintaining that she had voiced those concerns at past board meetings and that it would be “redundant” of her to do it again.

“I would have to go back to all of my notes from work sessions to be specific and I don’t have to offer you that now,” Emerson said.

Later, just before the vote was taken, she said one of her concerns focused on a section of the rules that pertained to political signs.

She said she worried it left the county vulnerable to a lawsuit, adding the code was littered with “arbitrary and capricious” language.

“I’m convinced this has potential to leave us in legal jeopardy,” Emerson said.

Price Johnson took a different position, calling the revisions long sought “substantive changes” and a “major step forward” that were “greatly appreciated” by business owners.

She also noted that the proposed rules had been reviewed by the county’s legal department, twice.

Likewise, Homola also called the changes “substantial,” saying the proposed code reflected changes requested from a broad cross section of the business community.

She congratulated county staff on a job well done.

“I appreciate the work; thank you for keeping in on the table,” she said.

 

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