Design Review Board moving forward with sign ordinance

Friday, February 1, 2019
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City Planner Cathy Barta walks people through the latest revised edition of the Lewistown Sign Ordinance during Wednesday night’s Design Review Board meeting at the Community Center. Barta and the Design Review Board listened to comments from those in attendance and made some more language changes. They will bring the draft to the Feb. 4 Committee of the Whole meeting and visit with City Commissioners about it.

Photo by Charlie Denison

At the end of Wednesday’s Design Review Board meeting at the Community Center, City Planner Cathy Barta received applause from some of those in attendance.

She’d just walked everyone through the latest draft of the Lewistown Sign Ordinance in a little less than two hours, listening to comments along the way, taking suggestions, trying to make the ordinance work for as many people as possible.

“This meeting was a culmination of several different meetings we’ve had as a Design Review Board and working with the community to revise the sign ordinance,” Barta said. “We’ve taken the time to consolidate all the comments we’ve received.” 

Design Review Board members Tim Robertson, Carol Woolsey and Toni Gies were also in attendance.

“These individuals were appointed by the City Commission for their demonstrated interest and knowledge in the cultural, historical and environmental heritage of Lewistown,” Barta said. “That’s part of our direction. We are directed to preserve the heritage of the state of Montana...this helped guide our decisions.”

This process kicked off in mid-August, Barta said, and in that time the Design Review Board solicited “a lot of public input.”

“We’ve had several public meetings and we’ve received extensive comments and feedback,” Barta said. 

The Design Review Board has used the information they’ve received to come up with a drastically different draft.

“We’ve put a lot of work into this project,” Robertson said. “It hasn’t been easy to incorporate the old document, new information, new technology, work with the beliefs and desires of a lot of different people and at the same time try to preserve what we have here in Lewistown.”

Robertson said the latest version of the ordinance is pretty different from previous versions, as it incorporates a lot of comments and language changes. It’s also condensed.

“We removed a lot of the existing ordinance for clarity and compromise,” Barta said. “The document itself is 23 pages, but 10 pages of that is definitions. We’re not debating the definitions. Those are industry standards, and we’re not going to be reviewing or changing them.”

By and large, Barta said the Design Review Board’s goal from the get-go was to “work with the community on what makes sense.”

On Wednesday, some business owners, city commissioners and sign makers came to hear the revisions, and many of them were pleased with the results.

Kirk Eastman of Eastman Sign Co. said the adjustments made by the Design Review Board “sound reasonable.”

Some of the lengthier discussions focused on “personal expression signs,” sign height, prohibited signs, permanent signs, general sign provisions and electronic message center signs.

The current ordinance states, “to maintain and preserve the historic character of Lewistown, no more than three electronic message center signs shall be allowed within the Historic Districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

“We’ve received a lot of feedback on this, and, generally speaking, those in our community who aren’t business owners don’t seem to welcome these signs,” Barta said. “However, there are a lot of people in the business community fighting to allow electronic message center signs.”

“This was a highly contentious issue,” added Robertson. “I’ve received a lot of feedback on it, and it’s gone back and forth. Some people say ‘get rid of them altogether’ and some people say ‘unchain the thing and put up as many as you want to have.’ What we have here is a compromise. We’ve already got this historic district we’re trying to maintain the integrity of… so why not stop where it is and – outside of that area – there aren’t any regulations of the number of signs.”

It was not easy to come up with this compromise, Barta said, but she believes this is the best way to move forward.

“It’s a fine line to strike a balance between allowing the community to develop in other areas while preserving our historic integrity as a downtown,” she said. “We’re trying to find a balance preserving our historic downtown – which we all want to do – and allow for development on the outskirts of town where it’s a little bit more modern.”

“No one is saying we want fewer signs downtown,” Robertson added. “What we’re saying is the rapid fire, 2 million color LED signs are not historic in nature and don’t add value to the neighbor that have to live with them forever. It detracts the value from the neighbor that wants a charming, historic store.”

“I personally don’t care for those signs, but who am I to tell them what they should put up?” said Snowy Lanes owner Rex Coleman, one of few business owners in attendance Wednesday. “And, if they’re not too bright, they’re not a hassle.”

The Design Review Board will go over the final proposed ordinance with the City Commissioners at the Monday, Feb. 4 Committee of the Whole meeting at the Community Center (307 W. Watson Street) at 6 p.m.

“We’re handing it to you now,” Robertson told City Commissioners present at Wednesday’s meeting.

Barta encourages those interested in commenting on the sign ordinance at the COW to read the sign ordinance first.

“More than half of the comments we’ve received from individuals were based on rumor and what people had told them,” she said. “They weren’t actually valid to things that were in the sign ordinance. They didn’t address anything we were proposing.”

The ordinance is available at the City office or at

Following the COW, the Design Review Board plans to get the ordinance on the City Commission agenda in hopes to repeal the existing ordinance and replace it with their final draft.



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