The Durango City Council approved a new sign code Tuesday intended to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling but criticized by some in the local business community for stomping out sidewalk signs.
The code, which was adapted to address content neutrality, establishes new standards for temporary signs in the city. The previous code regulated temporary signs based on content – for example, a real estate sign had different rules than a political sign – but the new code regulates signs based on how long they are posted, the place they are posted and the manner in which they are posted.
The Supreme Court, in a 2015 case, found it unconstitutional to regulate signs based on content. Doing so is a violation of the First Amendment’s right to free speech, according to the unanimous ruling.
The goals of the new code include content neutrality, increased flexibility, improved usability and clarity, staff said.
The problem businesses have with the new sign code doesn’t have to do with content neutrality, but rather the continuance of a ban on A-frame signs – sometimes called sandwich boards – on city sidewalks.
Some businesses were hoping City Council would do away with the ban on sandwich boards. Instead, councilors approved the new sign code with the ban but directed staff to work toward a compromise with businesses to create a text amendment that might allow the A-frame signs.
The Business Improvement District thought the code rewrite may be an opportunity to change the rules to allow sandwich boards, said Tim Walsworth, executive director of the BID.
But the BID has not taken a position on the ordinance, saying that businesses are split on the issue, Walsworth said. Some businesses want them – sandwich boards are great for advertising. Other businesses don’t – the sidewalks are already crowded enough.
“There’s valid arguments on both sides of it,” Walsworth said in an interview.
The BID encouraged business owners to voice their positions Tuesday night before city councilors.
Five business owners addressed City Council on the issue of sandwich boards, all suggesting that banning them would be a detriment to business.
Earl Colcough, owner of The Fallen Angel, 801½ Main Ave., Unit B, said he could lose $200 to $400 a day without the use sandwich boards.
“Nine times out of 10, when we have a nonlocal step foot in our store, we like to ask them how they found out about us and they say they saw the sign on the corner,” Colcough said.
Local rules on temporary signs across the country were invalidated by the Supreme Court decision that found an Arizona town’s sign code unconstitutional for treating directional signs differently than other signs. The decision prompted changes nationwide. The city of Durango began reviewing its sign code in April 2018 – a process that was completed with Tuesday’s approval of the sign code ordinance.
The new rules changed the regulation of temporary signs, allowing an aggregate of 12 square feet of signage in residential zones without a permit for an unlimited amount of time. A total of 48 square feet of signage is allowed 30 days before an election.