Temporary signs in Napa

A change in Napa's city sign ordinance would allow business owners to seek permits for temporary signs when construction or post-disaster repairs impede customer access. This A-frame pointed visitors to Molinari Caffe on Brown Street during repairs to nearby buildings damaged in the 2014 earthquake, until the city informed owner Rick Molinari such displays were illegal.

Some Napans may soon have an easier time posting signs during election season or construction work – or after a natural disaster.

Upcoming changes to Napa’s sign code would allow markers endorsing political candidates to appear on commercial property as well as outside homes, and let merchants post temporary signs to direct customers to their front door when road work threatens to block or obscure the way in. The proposal will head to the City Council Tuesday after winning the Planning Commission’s endorsement last month.

One of the rule changes fills a hole in what non-commercial displays are permitted during electoral campaigns, according to city senior planner Michael Walker.

The revised language adds to an existing code that currently authorizes signs for candidates and ballot measures on residential sites only.

Meanwhile, a new section of the sign code would govern “additional temporary directional signs” sought by business owners when construction or safety barriers screen a store from view, or block the streets and sidewalks providing direct access.

When a “physical event” such as construction, natural disaster or special event forms a barrier to a business, the owner would be able to apply for a temporary sign permit to the community development director.

The changes would follow an overhaul of Napa’s rulebook for the size and height of commercial signs, which the council approved in January. While debating those rule changes, council members including Mary Luros called on Napa to lift a 2011 ban on A-frames and other displays intended to help business owners better survive street closures – an issue that became acute after the August 2014 earthquake when the city cordoned off one shoulder of Brown Street due to building damage downtown.

After briefly relaxing oversight, Napa code enforcement officers began re-enforcing the ban on temporary markers about five months after the quake.

However, the grassy strips separating Napa streets from sidewalks will remain off limits to signage, political or otherwise. While homeowners are responsible for tending to the green patches known as “parkways,” they are part of a street’s right of way and remain under city control.

Despite council support for allowing residents to plant election signs in such strips as they would in their front yards, no such change appears in the revised rules. Planning officials have said they cannot exempt campaign displays from the ban because such a carve-out would clash with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring neutral treatment of different kinds of content.

In that 2015 case, the high court ruled that an ordinance in Gilbert, Arizona violated the First Amendment’s free-speech protections by imposing stricter rules for directional signs on churches than it did for other non-commercial messages.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.