History suggests sign crackdown not going to gain traction

Trash disposal and transient dispersal have been troubling city hall waters of late. They are certainly capable or raising rancor, but may have met their match in sign regulation — an issue the city “settled” in the 1950s, 1973, 1990 and 2008, and is about to “settle” again.

For how long is anyone’s guess. But we doubt the “for good” option will get much play.

As essayist and philosopher George Santayana once observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Indulge us in a brief recap:

At some point in the 1950s, the McMinnville City Council directed commercial signs limited to 25 square feet. It ordered non-conforming signs removed within one year, at which point a business community uprising forced an ignominious retreat.

The council attemped again in 1973. The intervening decades have served to heal wounds, sooth nerves and dull memories. Again, it suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of business interests.

In 1987, a new slate of councilors addressed the issue. Over the course of three years, they subjected a proposed sign ordinance to nine rewrites, based on testimony presented during countless hours of hearings. The final draft won majority support in a business community survey conducted by the chamber, but failed in the face of a deadlocked council.

That outcome left a bitter taste with then-Mayor Ed Gormley, who termed the setback “(our) darkest moment as a council and staff.” He proclaimed, “I’m not interested in dealing with this again.”

But in 2003, Media Arts of Vancouver, Washington, reignited the issue by erecting a set of Highway 99W billboards far exceeding the industry standard. It later went under, as did its Clear Channel successor, but the legacy remains.

Reacting to continuing community displeasure, the council dragged a reluctant Gormley into yet another sign campaign. The aim was to craft an ordinance capable of not only surviving development and adoption, but also implementation.

A citizen committee ended months of debate by releasing an initial draft in September 2007. Following six public hearings and a rewrite designed to ease business concerns, the council voted unanimous adoption in November 2008.

To ease the pain, the council gave the owners of non-conforming signs eight years to come into compliance. It ordered an initial review in one year to assess its handiwork.

Then-Planning Director Doug Montgomery reacted, “We’ll know in a year’s time how closely we hit the target.”

Then-City Manager Kent Taylor responded, with remarkable clairvoyance, “Whoever’s sitting here in 10 years or 20 years, that’s when we’ll see the real impact of this. You can’t tell after a year.”

Sure enough, a furor erupted in the approach to last year’s Dec. 31 compliance deadline.

The council initially responded by extending the grace period another year and promising to consider accommodations in the meantime. Now it appears ready to dispose of the issue by mandating compliance only when a property undergoes major renovation or change in ownership.

Paint us disappointed, but understanding. Given this issue’s tortuous provenance, perhaps that’s the best we’re ever going to witness.

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