‘Visual discord’ a key concern in new sign ordinance

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Lewistown City Planner Cathy Barta visits with local business owners and sign makers about the proposed sign ordinance during a Design Review Board meeting Monday afternoon.

Photo by Charlie Denison

More than 20 people attended the Design Review Board meeting Monday afternoon at the City Complex to share their thoughts or concerns about the proposed sign ordinance.

Many of those in attendance were business owners and sign makers and had much feedback to share.

Lewistown City Planner Cathy Barta led the meeting.

“We are taking a look at revising our sign ordinance based on recent case law, advances in technology and the public perception of the way our community is advancing this technology,” Barta said. “Parts of our sign ordinance have been determined to be unconstitutional by recent case law from the Supreme Court, so we are forced to make some changes.”

This process began in early September, Barta said, and was expected to move forward for a first reading at the Nov. 5 commission meeting, but Barta is slowing down the process, as she wants to have another Design Review board meeting to continue the discussion.

“We had an idea of how much time this would take us, but as you work on something you realize there are more issues at stake that weren’t considered,” Barta said. “We want to make good decisions moving forward. We hope to get more input from community members as well as the business owners.”

Doc’s Casino Sports Bar and Grill owner Tony Brown said he is pleased to hear there will be more discussion, as he feels the first meeting just scratched the surface.

“I think we are off to a good start, but there are still a lot of questions,” he said.

Brown asked a number of questions during the meeting, especially regarding the meaning of “visual discord,” brightness standards and what types of illumination are permitted on signs. 

Other business owners agreed “visual discord” was not clearly defined.

“It’s pretty vague,” said McDonald’s owner Pete Peterson. “This leaves a lot of ‘he said she said’ and could lead to an opportunity for an attorney to come to the City and say ‘this is not defined. How can you tell me this is visual discord?’”

Mike Lamphier, owner of the Western Bar, Stockman’s Casino and other businesses, also had concerns about visual discord, as well as animated digital signs, which he discussed with the News-Argus before the meeting.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the dancing leprechaun I have on my digital sign board,” he said.

According to Lamphier, much of the language in the ordinance is subjective, especially when it comes to terms such as “visual discord.” Following Monday’s meeting, however, he was encouraged by the direction of the discussion and glad to see Barta and the Design Review Board being receptive to concerns.

“I think the meeting went well and we moved the ball a whole bunch,” Lamphier said. “I think the fact that [the Design Review Board] is slowing down this process and isn’t looking at getting this approved right away is very reasonable.”

Barta said it was never her intention to rush this process and she wants to work with the community as efficiently as possible.

“This isn’t something we are trying to shove down the community’s throat,” Barta said. “What we are trying to do is preserve the character of Lewistown and also make it a better environment for the community as a whole.” 

Design Review Board member Tim Robertson shared a similar sentiment during the meeting.

“As a citizen and as a business owner, I look at our goal to find a balance and update these rules with today’s technology,” he said. “We want to balance the need for business owners to promote their businesses, which includes business owners, realtors and politicians. At the same time, we need to preserve the long-term value and character of Lewistown and the right of private citizens to not be exposed to signage to an undo degree. It’s a tough balance to find. There are a lot of intricacies. I encourage people to try to see the whole thing versus one little piece, because that’s what we are trying to do.”

It was Barta’s hope that Monday’s meeting would be an example of that, as she went through section by section, asking those in attendance for feedback. The meeting lasted two hours and got through about half of the ordinance.

The date for the next Design Review Board meeting is to be determined.

“We hope to start around 5:30 p.m. instead of during the afternoon, so more people are available to come,” Barta said. 

For more information, call Barta at 535-1775.



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