Local sign ordinance to change

By Meg Olson

While proposed revisions to the Point Roberts Character Plan will wait for next year to go through the county’s comprehensive plan review process, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has prompted immediate changes to sign rules.

“We have a Supreme Court issue that kind of took the whole planning world by surprise,” Whatcom County senior planner Gary Davis told members of the Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) at their April 12 meeting.

“The Supreme Court has said the government cannot distinguish between signs based on their content. That’s unconstitutional and infringes on freedom of speech. You can regulate based on size, location, height, color, but if you have to read the content to know what kind of sign it is regulating on that basis is unconstitutional.”

The impact of this for Point Roberts is that rules in the existing sign ordinance banning off-premise signs, or setting separate rules for gas station signs, are not allowed under the terms of the decision.

“You may be able to regulate temporary versus permanent signs by the material they’re made of,” Davis said, but if you need to read the sign to know it’s temporary, those rules are out too.

“What we’re proposing is eliminating the sign ordinance and replacing it with a new section in the zoning ordinance for the Point Roberts Special District,” Davis said. “We’re trying to work with you guys on how we can do some stopgap measures,” said Nick Smith, permit center specialist with Whatcom County.

The county is proposing limiting sign rules to height, size and amount of the sign that can be internally lit. The existing character plan prohibits internally lit signs but PRCAC has recommended an exception for the proposed Valero sign, allowing 6″ high white LEDs.

“The reason we’re trying to have rules fair to gas stations is the cat’s already out of the bag,” said PRCAC member Steve Wolff.

PRCAC members unanimously endorsed proposed temporary sign rules: one freestanding sign per lot, a maximum of 40 square feet per sign face, no more than 10 square feet internally lit, and no moving or flashing signs. These rules would apply to all signs, regardless of their content or the nature of the business.

The character plan revisions developed by a review committee last year will wait for county review and approval when the next batch of comprehensive plan amendments come up in 2017.

This year county planners are working on the overall comprehensive plan update for the entire county.

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