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Choices loom for city on sign issue

One thing everyone agreed on when the Hudson Plan Commission opened discussion on revisions to the city's sign ordinance was that the existing rules aren't working.

Community Development Director Dennis Darnold said that over the years he's collected countless illegal garage-sale and real-estate signs left standing on street corners.

"I'd like to have a dollar for every realtor sign I've picked up," Darnold said.

Mayor Dean Knudson at the commission's Dec. 10 meeting identified three types of signs - directional, vinyl banner and sidewalk sandwich-board - that and that are frequently in violation of the city's current sign ordinance.

Knudson chairs the seven-member commission. The other members are Alderperson Alan Burchill, Park Board Chairman Pat Casanova, Public Utility Commission representative Kevin Vance and citizen representatives Fred Yoerg, David Selissen and Mary Claire Olson.

Knudson also wants new rules on electronic message board signs. He says the city's existing regulations on message board signs are conflicting and obsolete.

The City Council was scheduled to vote Monday night on a moratorium on new message board signs.

Knudson earlier had signed an executive order imposing a moratorium on the signs until Jan. 19, 2010. That order was signed Nov. 18, 2009.

In addition, Knudson said Hudson's rules on political campaign signs prohibiting them from being posted more than 60 days before an election, and requiring them to be removed immediately after the election, might not stand up to a court challenge.

He said courts have ruled that municipalities can regulate the place where signs may be erected, the types of signs allowed and the times when they can be put up - but not the content of the signs. The content is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting free speech, he indicated.

Knudson said he asked Darnold and Building Inspector David Gray to draft a policy on enforcing the city's sign ordinance after getting many complaints about signs.

The complaints were generally of two types, he said, citizens unhappy about illegal temporary signs on street right of ways and business owners asking why another business is allowed to violate the city's sign ordinance.

The policy Darnold and Gray drafted was to issue two warnings to businesses and property owners with illegal signs, and issue citations to those who don't respond to the second warning within 24 hours.

City officials received a lot of complaints after the first warning letters went out, Knudson said.

"I come across as the bad guy, and I don't really want to," he said.

Knudson said he believes laws that most people can't or won't follow are too stringent.

He wants the Plan Commission to recommend changes to the existing regulations to make them easier for businesses and property owners to comply with, and for the city to enforce.

Knudson noted that most types of temporary signs, and business directional signs on street right of ways, are prohibited by the current ordinance.

"Although you'd never know that by driving around town," he said.

Darnold, a 23-year city employee, said the city has gone through numerous cycles of increasing enforcement of sign regulations, and then letting them slide.

His department doesn't have the time or staff to deal with all the violations, he said.

Gray pointed to another obstacle to enforcement. He said that shortly after he joined the city staff 10 years ago, he was told by the previous mayor - Jack Breault - not to harass businesses after he asked a business to remove an illegal sign.

"I'm willing to do what's asked of me. I just want some clear direction," Gray told the Plan Commission.

Knudson said Hudson has a strict sign ordinance.

Darnold reported that it was drafted in response to another period in the city's history when there was a proliferation of signs that many people considered tacky.

Mark Mondus of Mondus Motor Sports was at the Plan Commission meeting to listen to the discussion. His business is located on a cul de sac a block off Gateway Boulevard. It has a sign on the heavily traveled street directing motorists to its location.

Mondus said the sign has been there for 14 years and is very important to his business.

He said he'd like to have a permanent sign at the corner of Gateway Boulevard and Gateway Circle if the city would allow it.

The commission appeared sympathetic to his situation and willing to allow off-site business directional signs in some cases.

Vance said that as a business owner (he owns several Taco John's restaurants in the region, including Hudson's) he understands how important signage can be to a business's bottom line.

"In a tough economy right now, do we really want to make it harder on those businesses trying to make a living?" he asked.

He said he views signs that some people might think are tacky as great marketing ideas.

Yoerg and Olson indicated a preference for stricter enforcement of what they would consider reasonable regulations.

"We don't want Hudson looking like Las Vegas," Yoerg said at one point in the discussion.

"I think we have to decide what we want the community to look like," said Olson.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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