Norm Blakeley of Alaska Trading and Loan is not happy with the Soldotna City Council's decision on a new sign ordinance. "It's going to be extremely expensive to start all over," he said. "I'm only 2 feet from being in compliance."
Photo by M. Scott Moon
After hearing 16 Soldotna business owners object to a proposed ordinance changing the rules regarding freestanding signs in the commercial district, the city council passed the ordinance by the slimmest of margins Wednesday night.
Council members Shane Horan, Betty Obendorf, Jane Stein and Scott McLane voted in favor of the ordinance, and council member Ed Sleater voted against it. Four favorable votes are required to pass an ordinance in Soldotna.
Council member Jim Stogsdill was absent from the meeting.
Almost as soon as the votes were cast, the business owners left the council chambers, too soon to hear Mayor Dave Carey serve notice that he would consider a veto.
Alaska law allows the mayor of a first-class city to veto an ordinance as long as the veto is exercised before the next regular meeting of the council. The veto must be accompanied by a written explanation of the reasons for it.
The council can then override the veto with a two-thirds vote, which must come within 21 days after the veto is exercised or at the next regular council meeting, whichever is later.
The sign ordinance, which was amended at the request of business owners a number of times during the unusual four public hearings conducted on the new law, restricts freestanding signs to 20 feet in height, and mandates that they be placed 20 feet back from the curb.
Signs also are prohibited from placement within a sight triangle adjacent to a driveway meeting a public street that would impede visibility.
As approved, all non-conforming signs that exist in the commercial district must be brought into conformity by June 30, 2017. Sign owners also may apply to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a seven-year extension.
As requested by business owners, variances to height and placement requirements may be granted if an existing sign is within 10 percent of standards in the ordinance.
Most of the objections raised by business owners Wednesday involved the costs related to replacing or relocating their signs. Many said they believe existing signs should be grandfathered in and not be subject to new standards.
“I don’t see how this is going to help the aesthetics of our city,” said Norm Blakeley, co-owner of Blakeley’s Auction Company. “This is ludicrous.”
Alan Humphries, pastor of Soldotna Church of God, said he has not found anyone in favor of the change.
“To me it’s a penalizing of these small businesses -- many of whom built this community,” he said.
One Soldotna commercial property owner -- Fred Sturman -- used the opportunity to express his anger at rising property taxes.
“The (Kenai Peninsula) Borough raised our assessed value 20 percent this year ... and the rising utility bills ... I’m going to have to sell some stocks to pay my taxes this year,” Sturman said.
“You people are pilin’ on a little too much. It really upsets me what you guys are doin’. We’re being taxed out of here,” he said.
“I know the government’s not been hurt at all. You get your raises, free medical, retirement. We’re paying for it,” Sturman said.
Council member Stein asked Horan -- who is also borough assessor -- when property taxes were last increased in Soldotna.
Horan said the tax rate had not been raised in recent years, but, “This year we reassessed all the businesses here. The assessed values went up about 25 percent.”
Soldotna lawyer Joseph Kashi, one of two members of the public testifying in favor of the ordinance Wednesday, said while in Anchorage, he was looking through some guidebooks and found one that said, “Soldotna is an eyesore. Keep driving until you get to Homer.”
Kashi said, “Commercial signs are like an arms race. I think the sign ordinance puts responsible limits on it.”
Some of the business owners implied that if they are forced to spend money on new signs, it will be money they can no longer donate to the many organizations in the community that come to them on a regular basis soliciting donations.
Council member Sleater said he likes the idea that the ordinance brings order to the sign situation in Soldotna, “but it keeps coming back, ‘We best not be biting the hand that feeds us.’”
Student ex-officio council member Tashina Wortham-Turnbull likened the sign controversy somewhat to a recent situation at Skyview High school.
She said students were allowed to put posters on their hallway lockers. Some put a good deal of creativity and expense into their posters, but then some put up posters that were considered inappropriate, forcing school administrators to tear down all the posters.
“A lot of kids were really hurt by it,” she said. “Nobody likes a change of the rules in the middle of the game.”
Wortham-Turnbull said she acknowledged that the two controversies were vastly unequal, and said some of the students at her school would like to see some business signs changed, “but we know small businesses support us. With the overwhelming dissent, I cannot support this,” she said.
Though Wortham-Turnbull votes on council issues, her vote is unofficial.
Mayor Carey did not indicate when he would decide on whether to veto the measure.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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