Council OKs new sign ordinance

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Variances: Requests by LAPS and Smith’s to be heard by P and Z

By Arin McKenna

Los Alamos County has been trying to revise its sign code ever since a 2006 signage survey revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the ordinance, netting responses such as “too restrictive and too cumbersome.”

After years of working and reworking by the Community Development Department (now the Community and Economic Development Department) and the Planning and Zoning Commission, numerous public meetings and delays to address legal concerns, council voted unanimously Tuesday to repeal the old ordinance and adopt a new one.

CEDD Principal Planner Gary Leikness came armed with three large binders holding the history of the new ordinance when he presented to council, but he kept his introductory remarks succinct.

Since council had thoroughly discussed most of the proposed changes during its August work session, much of the discussion centered on two late developments.

Los Alamos Public Schools requested that the code governing schools be changed from “… may have one freestanding sign per location” to “… may have one freestanding sign per street frontage” to assure that schools could be identified from every direction.

Smith’s Food and Drug Centers requested a change to the freestanding signage restrictions for Area 4 (Trinity Drive).

The new ordinance limits height to 15 feet and dimensions to 50 square feet. Smith’s has requested that the limits be increased to 20 feet and 100 square feet respectively.

Bret Wahlen, president of Great Basin Engineering, spoke on behalf of Smith’s during public comment. Wahlen illustrated how the proposed change would allow Smith’s to display all the tenants at the new Trinity Site development while leaving the sightlines open at the base for safety reasons.

Wahlen also argued that despite the open base the sign is more architectural in nature and should be classified as a monument sign rather than freestanding. Whalen added that the larger signage would help reduce clutter.  

“Our experience has been to have a little bit larger sign so the tenant’s signs can still be read based on the speed limits of the road and to minimize the number of signs,” Wahlen said.

Staff recommended that council adopt the LAPS request but urged council to reject or modify the changes proposed by Smith’s. Leikness argued that Smith’s could achieve its purpose with either a monument-style or a project identification sign as defined in the new code, or that it could request a waiver from the Planning and Zoning commission.

Councilor Mike Wismer rejected that reasoning.

“It seems that we’re setting up a policy where we know automatically there is either going to be a special permit or a request for a variance,” Wismer said. “Setting up a policy where you know that immediately you’re going to be asked for a variance seems counterintuitive.”

Council was uncomfortable with the fact that the LAPS and Smith’s requests had not been heard by P and Z. Leikness said that despite efforts to get input earlier, both had just recently provided feedback. Joan Ahlers, assets manager for LAPS, confirmed that Leikness had made efforts to get feedback sooner.

Councilor Geoff Rodgers made the motion to adopt the ordinance with three minor amendments that clarified or corrected text. The motion also directed staff to take alternative amendments regarding changes proposed by LAPS and Smith’s to the Planning and Zoning commission and to return to staff as soon as possible.

“I don’t want to stand in the way of these changes, I just want them to be better publicly vetted before council adopts them,” Rodgers said. “I get real uneasy when we begin to wing things, especially when there are so many little details such as a sign code.

Councilor Fran Berting offered a friendly amendment to also send the section regarding electronic message centers back to P and Z for review. Berting wanted to lengthen the time before a message could change (the new ordinance allows a minimum of eight seconds per message) and was also concerned that EMCs could “ruin the ambiance” on Central Avenue. Neither Rodgers nor Councilor Vincent Chiravalle, who seconded the motion, agreed to the change.  
Council commended Leikness, the CEDD staff and the county attorney’s office on their efforts.

“This is huge, because this has just been lingering and lingering,” Stover said. “It’s good that we’re getting this off of our plate and moving forward with it.”