By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
City leaders last week passed signs rules, a move that may help some local businesses, but not those hoping to erect billboards in the community.
Concluding an effort started nearly three years ago, Surprise City Council voted to adopt City Code Chapter 113 at their March 6 regular meeting at City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza.
The ordinance, which passed on a 5-2 vote, governs the use of permanent and temporary advertising signs. Approval came on the heels of a Feb. 6 council meeting and subsequent revisions made by city staff members to the ordinance recommended by the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Council was tasked with selecting one of two final versions of the measure, City Attorney Robert Wingo explained.
“At the Feb. 6 meeting, there was some feedback from council. Staff went back and made further revisions to the Planning and Zoning Commission’s recommendations and tried to memorialize the direction they were receiving from council, which was to remove the billboard provisions,” Mr. Wingo said. “If you adopt an ordinance tonight, what we need to know is which version you adopt.”
The key difference between the two hinged on the omission in the revised version of provisions, which might have allowed the installation of billboards along Grand Avenue and the Loop 303.
Rhett Cooney, a partner with of Scottsdale-based Boulevard Media Company, took to the podium and issued a final appeal to keep the billboard provision in the ordinance.
“We are not just interested in building signs without taking into consideration the impact on the surrounding area and the aesthetic value of the signs we build,” said Mr. Cooney. “We have heard you and share your concerns about the community and its integrity. Our company’s values are to give back to the communities we operate in.”
If allowed to operate in Surprise, the company would provide free advertising space to the city on its billboards, which rotate through a set of eight digital images every minute. City officials would have easy access to post advertisements, public service announcements and emergency notices at no charge in perpetuity, Mr. Cooney explained.
“We are a committed community partner and want to demonstrate this by offering the city of Surprise one of the eight rotations on all digital billboards we would build in Surprise,” Mr. Cooney said. “The ease of switching content is literally the click of a keyboard.”
Despite the offer of free advertising, panelists expressed concern about the potential aesthetic impact of allowing billboards.
Mayor Sharon Wolcott illustrated her objection by sharing a photo depicting the intersection of Grand and 111th avenues in Youngtown, where fast food signs, plaza monuments, building signs, a two-sided billboard, a painted truck and a temporary sign create compete for the attention of passing motorists.
“This is a photograph of our next-door neighbor on Grand Avenue,” Ms. Wolcott said. “I don’t want to look like this. That’s their choice that they want to look like this. They’re OK with that. But this is something that we’ve been trying to avoid.”
Ms. Wolcott pointed out Grand Avenue cuts through 11 separate jurisdictions and, more than others, Surprise has shown leadership in addressing the aesthetic concerns.
“I wanted to make certain the we focused on the beautification of the original town site and, certainly, along the Grand Avenue corridor to make certain that the corridor was visually pleasing and welcoming to the new visitor coming to Surprise for the first time or for the hundredth time,” Ms. Wolcott said.
But District 5 Councilman Skip Hall challenged the mayor’s selection of the Youngtown intersection as a worst-case scenario example.
“I don’t think the clutter we saw there along Grand Avenue can happen with this ordinance,” Mr. Hall said. “With a billboard over temporary signs, you couldn’t pick a worse corner. It’s ugly. But this ordinance wouldn’t allow something like that on Grand Avenue.”
City planner Robert Kuhfuss explained that, if adopted, rules allowing billboards could still create problems later.
“Potentially it could actually,” Mr. Kuhfuss said. “Because, the way the language is constructed, if a billboard could go on Grand Avenue, it’s separated from other billboards but not from other signs.”
Mr. Hall challenged his explanation, pointing out that areas already identified for potential billboards are not located near business clusters like the one depicted in Youngtown.
“Yeah, but there’s certain locations that are pointed out on Grand Avenue for a billboard,” Mr. Hall countered. “There isn’t any signage where those billboards can go, except a monument sign. It’s very tidy. You don’t have temporary signs all over the place … we went over the exact locations on Grand Avenue where those signs could go.”
Local businesses need billboards to help lure motorists into the community, according to Mr. Hall.
“I think the 303 is going to get busier and busier,” Mr. Hall said. “I think it’s a great way to bring people in off the 303 and spend money in our city.”
However, District 1 Councilman Roland F. Winters Jr. echoed the mayor’s opposition to billboards on aesthetic grounds.
“The mayor and I often disagree on issues. Tonight, we agree,” Mr. Winters said. “As far as the 303 was concerned, it was not a very hard decision for me … ADOT did a beautiful job on that road and I don’t want to see it cluttered up with billboards. And that goes for Grand Avenue, too.”
After further discussion, council approved the revised ordinance with Mr. Hall and District 3 Councilman Patrick Duffy casting the only no-votes.