Atwater considers banning certain advertising

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMarch 26, 2014 

The Atwater City Council is considering updating its sign ordinance to ban certain types of advertising and to limit where “human billboards” — people who twirl signs or dress up in costumes — can stand on street corners.

The Planning Commission gave the City Council its recommendations for changes to the ordinance, but the issue was sent back to the commission after a discussion during a City Council meeting Monday.

The revised ordinance would prohibit outdoor promotional flags and air dancers, which are inflatable devices that are powered by fans to cause movement. The ordinance would also force human billboards or sign twirlers to stand 100 feet back from an intersection.

Planning Commissioner Fred Warchol said the commission voted unanimously in support of the ordinance changes, with one commissioner absent during the meeting.

“The consensus among all the commissioners is that these signs are obstructing the view of drivers and impacts the aesthetics of the city in general,” he said. “Some of these businesses have four or five signs in one area, especially down Bellevue Avenue.”

Not everyone in the city is a fan of the proposed ordinance changes.

Officials from the Atwater Chamber of Commerce said the restrictions on certain types of advertisement will hurt businesses already struggling in a down economy.

Connie Hunter, president of the Atwater Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber surveyed more than 30 businesses that expressed concerns about how the restrictions would impact their businesses.

“They can’t afford advertising on the radio or the newspapers; it’s just too expensive for them,” Hunter said. “We’re not in favor of taking away these means of advertising. This is not the time to impose these constraints on these struggling businesses.”

Hunter estimated that more than 30 businesses use the promotional flags as a way to attract new customers. “It could cause some of the businesses to close their doors, and that of course, would mean less revenue for the city that’s struggling financially as it is,” she said.

Councilman Larry Bergman said during the council meeting he’s been contacted by several business owners that are concerned about the proposed changes. “In light of the economy, profits are slim, and this is the only way they can advertise their business,” he said.

Atwater Police Chief and City Manager Frank Pietro said the issue has come before the council three or four times over the past year. Pietro said city officials don’t want people to stop promoting business, but the goal is to prevent some businesses from getting “carried away” with their advertising.

“There’s a point in time when you have people advertising at every corner and it starts to get trashy,” Pietro said. “We never want to stop people from promoting business, but we want to have a few restrictions on what they can put and where.”

Atwater Mayor Joan Faul stressed during the council meeting that enforcing the ordinance is the key to its success. “I think it’s good that we’re reviewing this, but there should also be a way to enforce it,” she said.

Warchol agreed, saying the last time the city issued a citation related to signs was 14 years ago when a business owner placed a political sign on the side of a building.

“I feel it’s almost futile to have any recommendations as long as there’s no enforcement,” Warchol said.

Mike Teater, the city of Atwater’s only code enforcement officer, said he will have to keep an eye out for violators during his regular shifts and respond to complaints – if the ordinance is approved.

“If they pass the ordinance, I just have to enforce it and respond when the complaints come in,” Teater said. “If I’m out looking at graffiti or shopping carts, and I see that, then it’s just one more thing on my patrol list that I would have to stop and enforce.”

Teater said he personally supports the proposed changes, saying the sign twirlers can be a distraction to drivers and that some advertising affects the city’s image.

“If every business in the city decided to have people twirling signs, what would that look like? Not to mention, how distracting would that be?” Teater said. “The only concern I have is that there needs to be a penalty or fine assessed for violating the law.”

The proposed ordinance also limits residents and businesses to two political signs per candidate or issue, per property.

The issue is expected to return to the City Council in a few weeks.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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