By editorial board • 

Contention, compromise led to Mac sign ordinance

In McMinnville, aesthetics matter.

We hold dearly the imagery of rolling vineyard hills, a tree-lined downtown historic district, the iconic Spruce Goose looking down from a gleaming glass facade, and so forth. And we don’t want to see that bucolic scene unduly marred by Highways 18 and 99W as they cut across the city.

No one is expecting commercial strips of that ilk to ever capture the stately and dignified beauty of the city’s downtown core, Granary District, college campus or historic neighborhoods. But the city took action in 2008 to keep them from becoming a concrete jungle overgrown with a distracting canopy of roadside signs, and is now moving to roll back some of their more egregious signage, as promised at the time.

Among other stipulations, the 2008 ordinance limits freestanding signs to 20 feet along the highways and 16 feet in off-highway commercial and industrial zones. And the generous eight years of grace it gave owners to achieve compliance is now coming to an end.

Additional 125-square-foot signs are permitted for every 500 feet of highway frontage, not to exceed three. There is no limit on mounted signs as long as they don’t project outward. Even electronic readerboard signs are permitted, as long as they don’t exceed 24 square feet in area and 12 feet in height.

Critics complain, “Doesn’t the government have better things to do than intrude on business? Who cares?” But had restrictions not been imposed in 2008, the impact on both safety and aesthetics would have become far more damaging. 

We hope the city and business community will maintain cool heads and work together as the compliance deadline of Dec. 31 nears. It was compromise and balance that propelled the ordinance to unanimous council approval in the first place.

Decades of contention over signage preceded the 2008 action. A 1950s regulation limited signs to 25 square feet and required removal of nonconforming ones within a year, but it didn’t last long. Substantial efforts to regulate signs gained traction in 1973 and 1990, but not sufficient to survive determined opposition.

It was Media Arts’ installation of three mega-sized billboards that sparked the successful 2008 campaign. The company was since acquired by Pacific Outdoor Advertising, which was not aware of the city’s looming removal deadline until a letter of notice was received, according to a spokesman.

The aim of sign ordinances is primarily to balance the needs of businesses, individuals and the public against traffic safety and aesthetic considerations. Ideally, they will establish consistent, enforceable and only minimally intrusive standards, serving to limit visual clutter without exceeding authority granted by state and federal law.

To be clear, the 2008 ordinance did not, in any sense, represent mindless government intrusion. It was drafted with a great deal of residents’ input to address a community uproar. Myriad measures were taken to ensure it struck a balance largely acceptable to local merchants. 

As for the big billboards, most locals are probably accustomed by now to driving past without paying any undue notice, considering them just part of the landscape. But we will be excited to see them removed, and doubt we’re alone.

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