New county sign rules aimed at helping businesses

With efforts spearheaded by the Island County Planning Department, the county is nearing the final stages of making significant changes to its commercial sign regulations.

With efforts spearheaded by the Island County Planning Department, the county is nearing the final stages of making significant changes to its commercial sign regulations.

In the revised code, the county seeks to balance the needs of businesses to be visible while being mindful of the county’s scenic rural environment, Planner Troy Davis said.

While signs are a means of communicating information to the public, the new rules are designed to prevent overcrowding, improper placement and excessive size.

According to Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, revisions to the sign code have been in the works for several years, but the planning department did not have the resources to make the updates. But this year, getting the revisions done became a higher priority.

“Because the economy has not turned around as quickly as we hoped, I thought this was one way to support local businesses,” Johnson said. “The current sign code is not meeting the needs for economic development.”

The department has received a number of complaints and requests for clarification in recent years from people who said the signs rules were hard to understand. For example, it was not clear how to determine the size of a sign, where signs could be placed, and the standards for temporary or special event signs were vague, Davis said.

“The way the code was written, it was not clear for businesses to understand and it was difficult for staff to interpret,” he said.

Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jill Johnson, who is running for the Dist. 2 commissioner seat, said she supports the changes.

The planning department had contacted builders, sign companies and the local chambers of commerce asking for comments on the draft proposals, and Johnson submitted a letter in response.

“A business needs a simple, straightforward regulation to comply with, and the county needs a simple straightforward code to enforce,” Johnson wrote.

One area that has caused confusion and consternation among business owners in the current code has been the color requirements for the signs. Under current code, “Sign colors shall provide sufficient contrast to be legible, yet be subdued enough to blend with the natural landscape and/or surrounding structures.”

Current code also requires that the majority of the background area of the sign be painted in earth tones, a dark color, or made of materials such as rock, wood, tile or brick.

Business owners say that these requirements limit the ability of a business to use an identifying brand logo that uses a specific color, and could reduce a sign’s effectiveness in helping to attract business.

“We’re having economic problems now, and one reason is that we are not paying enough attention to businesses,” said Leanne Finlay, a residential and commercial realtor with Windermere Real Estate. “I don’t want to see flashing signs, but businesses need signs that people can see.”

The latest draft of the sign code, which draws on language in the current code, would simply require that the sign structure be “architecturally integrated” with the commercial building and that “form, color, and building materials” be considered.

Davis said that while the sign structure must be compatible with the building, and the sign’s background cannot be fluorescent or reflect light, the words and graphics on the sign can include logos of any color.

“We tried to balance what was said by the business community with residential concerns,” Davis said. “I believe we have achieved a pretty good balance.”

The third draft of the regulations, which also addresses size, lighting and placement, is available for review online at islandcounty.net/planning. Comments can be submitted to Troy Davis at troy.davis@co.island.wa.us or by mail at Island County Planning, P.O. Box 5000, Coupeville, WA 98239.

The Island County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 28 to discuss the proposed changes to the regulations, with the possibility of additional hearings to follow. The hearing will be held in the commissioners’ Hearing Room, 1 NE 6th St., Coupeville.

The Planning Commission will make changes to the proposal and send it on to the Island County commissioners, who also will hold a public hearing.

Final adoption is expected in October.

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