Growing pains are sign of the times in Soldotna

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2007

Soldotna is having an identity crisis.

The homesteader village-turned-bustling city (by Alaska standards, at least) has been suffering through a series of growing pains lately — from the construction of a new, bigger bridge to the search for a cemetery and the completion of riverbank restoration projects to keep up with increasing usage. The latest came this week as the city council considered a proposed sign ordinance.

The measure pits two facets of the city’s personality against each other.

On one hand Soldotna is a retail-based town that relies heavily on sales tax revenue, and therefore the businesses that provide it. Soldotna has avoided some of the financial woes that have befallen Kenai in recent years in part because of its robust sales tax revenue. To maintain its economic health, Soldotna must maintain the health of its retail sector, which means the city government would do well to make itself business-friendly.

But on the other hand, Soldotna is in many ways still a small town, and it certainly is a hometown. The city prides itself on being a nice place to live, which means many things: low crime, good schools, a feeling of community and neighbors who care about each other and take pride in their town.

The two sides can coexist, but they are at odds over the sign ordinance.

The council is considering putting new restrictions on businesses governing the size, height and placement of freestanding signs in the commercial district. The proposal calls for limiting signs to 20 feet tall, down from the current allowance of 35 feet, and requiring they be set back 20 feet from the curb.

That would mean businesses like Trustworthy Hardware, Fred Meyer and Aspen Hotel would have to move, modify or completely tear down and rebuild their roadside signs, at costs that could run into thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars. Obviously, business owners are none to pleased with the prospect of spending money to redo signs that in some cases are a mere one or two years old, and in all cases currently conform to the city’s specifications.

Now the city wants to change the specifications.

There are valid reasons for it, the foremost being Soldotna wants to maintain its picturesque Alaska image, especially since hordes of visitors flock to Soldotna each summer specifically for its natural attributes. Having the Kenai River wind through town doesn’t mean much if the commercial district is so built up you can only smell the pinks but not even catch a glimpse of the water.

There’s something to be said for homesteader chic — after all, what would Alaska restaurants do if moss-covered food caches and rusty old trapping implements were outlawed as decor?

But there’s also something to be said for order and conformity. A town with lenient city codes, standards and planning tends toward a haphazard and shabby appearance. As one person speaking in favor of stricter sign regulations at Wednesday’s council meeting put it, we don’t want to look like Wasilla.

So where’s the middle ground between preventing eyesores and avoiding having businesses sore at the city?

One option that’s been suggested is changing the code and allowing businesses up to 10 years to conform to the new regulations.

Giving businesses time to prepare for the extra cost is admirable, but 10 years is silly. Nothing would change for nine years, 12 months and 20-some days. Businesses aren’t going to voluntarily shoulder the extra expense of renovating their signs until they have to, especially when 10 years gives them ample opportunity to convince future councils to change the regulations back to current standards.

We think a better course of action is grandfathering in existing signs and requiring that new ones conform to new codes. The difference between 35 and 20 feet isn’t so extreme that shortening the handful of signs that exceed the new limit would drastically improve the character of the city.

Grandfathering in existing signs also avoids the prickly problem of what to do with the city of Soldotna sign in front of city hall. It’s not over 20 feet tall but it is within 20 feet of the curb. It’s a perfectly unobtrusive, well-maintained sign.

Moving it would be a waste of taxpayer money. Crafting regulations so only the city’s sign is exempt would be unfair to businesses, neither of which would be good for Soldotna’s image.

Grandfathering in existing signs while requiring new signs to conform to stricter codes would show the city values the interests of its businesses and residents.

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