Soldotna, business owners talk electric sign regulation

City staff in Soldotna are learning more about how business owners feel about electronic signs — a relatively new way to advertise business in the town — as they work to update and streamline the ordinance that governs signage.

Soldotna’s sign code was created in 1999 and has been updated in what city staff have called a “piecemeal” fashion ever since, with the last major changes made in 2007. The city’s comprehensive plan includes updating the sign code in its list of high priority goals, so the Soldotna Planning and Zoning Commission, along with other city staff, embarked on a rewrite of the ordinance in January. City Planner John Czarnezki has estimated the process will take about a year.

It the most recent round of public work sessions held Wednesday at Soldotna City Hall, several local business owners and members of the sign-making industry voiced their concerns and opinions about the best practices for electronic and animated signs. They covered everything from the appropriate level of brightness to areas of town where illuminated signs should be allowed.

Czarnezki said the city focused on drawing in the public to give input on electronic signs in particular to better understand the concerns and ideas business owners and resident have about them.

“It’s a new technology, and our records show that most of the electronic signs that we’ve got in town … have gone in since 2007,” he said. “So it’s a relatively … rapidly growing segment of the sign industry … and we don’t have standards in our code to deal with them.”

Guff Sherman, owner of G.F. Sherman Signs on Kalifornsky Beach Road, said he could think of a few specific situations under which electronic signs in a limited commercial zoning district could work well and look nice.

In general, however, he and other business owners at the first of two work sessions Wednesday said electronic signs belong in commercial zoning districts.

Light pollution was another concern brought up by Sherman and others present at the earlier meeting.

Doug Field, owner of Kenai Neon Sign Company, said signs can be ordered and set up to automatically dim and brighten as needed.

When it came to discussion of how to regulate size of electronic signs relative to standard signs, Field said that in his experience, sign size is very driven by the budget of a business owner. Many signs in town end up self regulating simply because business owners can’t afford the maximum size allowed by the sign code.

Czarnezki said there was some consensus between the two work sessions held Wednesday when it came to electronic signs and their future in the city.

“Everybody felt that brightness should be regulated,” he said.

Commissioners and others also generally agreed that, if electronic signs were to be allowed in the limited commercial zoning district in Soldotna, they should at least be held to a higher level of review, Czarnezki said.

Where opinions differed, Czarnezki said, was about whether the city should include in the code a standard for the distance between two freestanding electronic signs. Some people in the meetings said those signs, too, would end up self regulating, while others said the potential for visual clutter in the city is a concern, Czarnezki said.

According to Czarnezki’s count, there are about 20 electronic signs in Soldotna city limits today. He said the work sessions thus far have resulted in some draft code staff members are preparing to show the commission that would set up incentives to bring current signs into compliance with the updated ordinance when it’s finished.

City staff plan to hold the same public outreach work sessions when it comes to discussions about temporary signs, Czarnezki said. These are another hot topic in Soldotna, mostly because they are considered to be an eyesore that make the city appear cluttered, especially during summer, he said.

Czarnezki said he was impressed by the turnout at Wednesday’s meetings, and is hoping for more members of the general public to engage with the process in addition to business owners. All Planning and Zoning Commission meetings and work sessions are open to the public and take place at Soldotna City Hall.

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