In its ongoing efforts to prevent and reduce blight, the city of Napa is refocusing its efforts on illegal signs.
Prompted by City Council members who raised the issue at their January workshop, the city’s code enforcement division will hone in on businesses displaying signs that haven’t been given the OK by way of permit, officials said.
“There has been a pretty strong buildup of these unapproved signs,” said Rick Tooker, director of the Community Development Department, which oversees code enforcement.
Tooker said the city takes enforcement action on about 800 signs each year, but he expects that number to grow in 2013. In the past, the city specifically addressed illegal A-frame signs downtown, then moved on to signs located near roadways. Now, code enforcement will target any signs that aren’t backed up by a city-issued permit, including banners on fences and buildings.
“This year, the council brought the issue up and said, ‘If we’re trying to up the quality and really make Napa a destination, how can we do that while turning a blind eye to all the banners, wind socks, flags and A-frames?’” Tooker said.
To date, when city code enforcement officers learned of an unauthorized sign — either from resident complaints, from volunteers or through their own efforts — they issued a compliance order warning businesses to remove the offending sign or face a fine, Tooker said.
As part of its new effort to gain broader compliance, the city will spend more time educating violators and potential violators. Staff is working on a form letter that can be sent to businesses to inform them of the city code that prevents such signs without a permit.
“It informs them before being heavy-handed,” Tooker said. “The first contact should be communicative and educative. It’s a better approach than a heavy-handed bureaucratic approach.”
If signs don’t come down after receipt of the letter, the city will send a compliance order, followed by a citation if the sign still remains in place, Tooker said. Citations can be around $100 per violation.
Temporary sign permits are issued over the counter from the city for a fee of $20 per application, Tooker said. Annually, between 25 and 30 are issued, though Tooker estimated there are more than 1,000 temporary signs citywide.
“These banners are installed and often are never removed, creating blight in many cases and a competitive disadvantage to businesses who follow the regulations,” Tooker wrote in an email. “Part of the approach is simply informing businesses of the need to obtain a sign permit for the special event temporary signs.”
Code Enforcement Officer Jane Hamer said it’s hard to quantify how much time she spends combating illegal signage, but it’s a lot. She does regular sweeps of major thoroughfares and addresses issues as she’s going about other code enforcement work, Hamer said. Of the city’s two code enforcement officers, only Hamer is dedicated to the task full-time; the second officer’s time is split between code enforcement and other duties.
“We’re trying to prohibit blight,” Hamer said, explaining that when one person or business erects a sign, multiple others are quick to follow, polluting the visual landscape. “We’re trying to have a city that looks really good, that isn’t cluttered and doesn’t have signs everywhere. You go to some cities and you can barely find the front door of a business because it’s covered in so many signs. That’s not an image we want to project.”
Hamer and Tooker both said the city is not against businesses having signs and promoting themselves, but signs need to be erected in a way that abides by the municipal code. When meeting with businesses about the issue, the city said it offers suggestions on how to send a message, without breaking the law or overwhelming people with too much information.
“If you’re going to put a sign up on your property, whether it’s a free-standing monument sign, a sign on the building or a special-event banner, you have to go through the Planning Department and get a permit,” Hamer said. “We really want the business owners to know what the code is and we want them to save time and money.”
Hamer encouraged any business owners considering a temporary sign to first contact the city and find out the parameters of the ordinance, so they doesn’t buy a costly banner that soon has to be removed.