Waupaca reviews sign ordinances
Plan Commission discusses changes regarding political signs
By Robert Cloud
Two sign ordinances were discussed at the July 7 meeting of the Waupaca Plan Commission.
Zoning Administrator Jeff Sanders is helping the city amend ordinances to encourage historic wall signs and allow permanent yard signs with political messages to be placed without permits.
City Administrator Aaron Jenson said the topic of removing campaign signs after an election had been tabled at an earlier meeting.
“There were complaints about political signage staying up longer than in past elections,” Jenson said.
Current city ordinances set time limits on temporary signs in residential areas. The signs can be erected no sooner than 15 days prior to an event or activity, such as yard sale, real estate sale or festival, and must be removed no more than five days after the event.
As an example, Sanders said a sign showing support for the Waupaca Comets would be in violation of the current ordinance since it is not for specific event.
Sanders said a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, ruled that sign regulations must maintain content neutrality.
“Any zoning regulation or sign regulation that requires the content of the sign to be interpreted to determine whether a sign is compliant or not is in violation of the First Amendment,” Sanders said.
Wording, images and colors can be interpreted as content, while the sign’s location within a zoning classification (residential or commercial) are not content and therefor not protected under the First Amendment.
Sanders said the purpose of the ordinance is to avoid people placing commercial signs in their yards.
An extreme example, would be an illuminated billboard in a yard in the middle of a city block.
While the city cannot regulate the message on a sign, it can regulate its size and placement.
Proposed changes to the sign ordinance would allow one sign to be placed on any parcel as long as they were not in the right of way or made to look like traffic safety signs.
“The messages can be whatever those property owners desire,” Sanders said. “Some of those messages are going to be messages the community’s not comfortable with.”
If the city council passes such an ordinance, these message signs can be permanent and would require no permit.
However, there would still be regulations regarding temporary signs that would apply to real estate signs, yard sale signs, any events associated with churches or civic organizations.
The temporary sign ordinance would continue to cover campaign signs. However, political signs not associated with an election campaign would be allowable if the ordinance amendment is passed.
“The vast majority of lots have no signs on them,” Sanders said. “Of those with signs, the vast majority only have one sign. Only a small number have two or more signs.”
City staff will draft a proposed ordinance that the Plan Commission will review before voting whether or not to recommend it to city council.
Current zoning codes limit the amount of space that a business can use for signs on its exterior walls.
The plan is to create a chapter in the signage ordinance that allows a business to install new signs without factoring historic signs into the maximum signage normally allowed.
The proposed ordinance says, “Historic signs are a distinctive feature of Waupaca and provide a visual link to the community’s spaces. They give continuity to public spaces.”
Under the ordinance, historic signs are encouraged even when the business or product they advertise is no longer in existence.
Historic signs that add character to historic buildings and Waupaca’s downtown will be treated as significant features of the property.
The ordinance says historic wall signs “should be maintained, but not repainted.”
“The moment it’s repainted, it’s no longer a historic sign,” Sanders said. “It’s a 2021 sign.”
Commission member Pat Phair asked how the old signs could be maintained without repainting them.
Sanders said there are protective coatings that can preserve the sign from the elements.
Noting that few communities in Wisconsin have established this kind of protections for historic signs, he said such ordinances are more common on the East Coast.
The changes were approved for recommendation to Waupaca Common Council.