Flag, streamer restrictions in draft sign code raises concerns

Some Coupeville business owners want to ensure new sign regulations don’t take away from the town’s quirky charm.

David Broberg, owner of the Blue Goose Inn bed and breakfast, said he finds the draft sign code too far reaching and more restrictive than the previous code.

Broberg and other members of the community weighed in on the draft Tuesday during a workshop with Mayor Molly Hughes and Town Planner Owen Dennison.

The town will also be holding two public hearings this month on the draft sign code.

“We’ve been letting things slide in town for a long time because we knew we were working on the sign code,” Hughes said.

“Once it’s in place, we’ll be enforcing it,” she said.

“When I look down Front Street, I think about visual clutter,” said Vickie Chambers, executive director of the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association. “I worry about an unlimited number.”

Others agreed, saying that keeping downtown visually appealing brings in more tourists.

Sarah Richards, who owns Lavender Wind on Coveland Street, pointed out that the sign code is for all of Coupeville, and not specifically Front Street.

I don’t think regulating the whole town based solely on Front Street is a good idea, she said.

The town is in the process of updating its 20-year-old code to reflect a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision restricting how local jurisdictions regulate signs.

“Primarily, the court held that any regulation that requires knowing who is proposing the sign — the ‘speaker’ — or what the message is, risks being found unconstitutional, according to the First Amendment,” Dennison said. “If challenged on the grounds that a sign regulation is not ‘content neutral,’ the town would need to prove that the regulation is furthering a compelling governmental interest and has tailored the regulation narrowly to achieve that interest.

“The code must ignore who proposes the sign and what the sign says and regulate based on design standards for sign type, location, size, etc,” he said.

“It has thrown every sign code into a tissy, made every sign code in the country illegal, basically,” Hughes said.

The Planning Commission worked on the code, which must be sent to the state Department of Commerce for review. It is subject to environmental review and be sent to the town’s insurance carrier and attorney for review.

Sign codes are challenging because they deal with all types of signs, Dennison said. The code has to deal with shape, size, color, land use and much more.

In the past, every sign code included regulations with real estate sign exemptions in neighborhoods. Now, code is written saying that, if a property is for sale, an extra sign can be placed on the property.

It doesn’t specify what that sign can be.

Another example is gas stations and exemptions for the types of signs needed to display gas prices.

“We can’t look at that ‘speaker’ as different anymore,” Dennison said.

The planning commission worked with town staff on the code and will be holding a public hearing on it next week.

The planning commission has taken a very balanced approach to how this will effect business owners, Dennison said.

Two restrictions within the draft code sparked concern among business owners Tuesday — restrictions on the number of flags that businesses could display, and prohibiting streamers.

The current draft includes exemptions on the number of governmental flags, such as the American flag, that can be displayed, but restrict the number of non-governmental flags.

“I’m a little reluctant to put too many controls on the number of American Flags,” he said.

Businesses owners said they were perplexed as to why a streamer would be prohibited.

Streamers can also be used as signs, Hughes said. Businesses try to work around code, using streamers in a temporary manner, making it nearly impossible to enforce.

Prohibiting streamers in the sign code would prohibit events and festivals from using streamers as well.

“I’m concerned about getting too heavy handed and not celebrating life when there’s a festival in town,” Richards said. “I think we need to be careful what we’re squelching.”

“The festivals really are the life of the town, not the streamers,” said Carol Moliter, who serves on the planning commission and board of the Coupeville Festival Association.

“It really comes down to what risk is the town willing to take,” Hughes said. “We have to have our insurance provider sign off on this.”

“So accomplishing de-clutter is hard to do without bias?” Broberg asked. “Clutter is vague and I think that’s where we get into trouble.”

The new sign code is more permissive and allows more flexibility by giving a percentage of sign space for businesses to use versus a set number of signs allowed, Dennison said.

“The intent isn’t to take away all freedom of expression.”

Hughes said she is willing to look at options allowing exceptions for things like streamers during festivals, perhaps through special permits.

Hughes and Dennison are urging people to submit written comments on the draft sign code for review during two public hearings being held this month.

The first hearing, before the planning commission, is 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 7 in the Island County Commissioner’s Hearing Room, B-02 1 NE 6th St., Coupeville. The second is before the Town Council 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 28 in the same location.