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Heidi Shaffer, Published October 17 2010

Fargo looks to change city’s current sign code

Fargo’s First Congregational Church plans to advertise its annual Harvest Dinner this month with a portable sign.

But if the City Commission approves a new draft of Fargo’s sign code Monday, it will likely be the last time the church can use such marketing.

The church, at 1101 17th Ave. S., is located in a residentially zoned neighborhood, where portable signs would no longer be permitted.

The complete rewrite of the code began more than a year ago and has drawn debate from businesses, residents and the sign industry.

Businessman Steven Stremick’s electronic message center on the corner of 13th Avenue South and University Drive sparked protest from neighbors and eventually led to the overhaul, which was expanded to include all aspects of signage in Fargo.

The goal was to update an “antiquated” code that was drafted in 1989 and did not address new sign technologies, such as electronic messaging centers, said Senior Planner Jim Hinderaker.

When reviewing the code, city leaders and staff tried to find a balance between concerns of neighbors and businesses, said John Q. Paulsen, who served as chairman of the sign code committee.

The Fargo Moorhead Chamber of Commerce came out in opposition in March to changing the sign code, President Craig Whitney said.

“A lot of these things that they’re talking about are very restrictive and could be very costly for businesses,” Whitney said.

But some residents feel the push of commercial signs into neighborhoods threatens Fargo’s historic and aesthetic appeal.

“The business community is looking at money,” said resident Polly Wendelbo, a member of the Hawthorne Neighborhood Association. “They have to realize that these signs do not belong all over our city.”

A sign of change

Changes in the code would only apply to new permits, so existing signs would be grandfathered in.

“A lot of what exists today is there and is going to stay there, but what we’re trying to do is look to the future,” Paulsen said.

If an existing sign that doesn’t conform with the new code is damaged by more than half of its value, it must be brought up to code.

Bringing signs up to code – even over time – will get costly for businesses, said Bernie Dardis, CEO of Indigo Signworks.

Dardis attended every sign code meeting the city held because he received almost 100 e-mails from his customers concerned about what the code change would mean.

The new code touches on nearly every aspect of signage, including portable signs, billboards, electronic messaging centers and on-site business signs.

Changes within the code include:

  • For portable signs, zoning restrictions apply to residential areas, limiting them largely to commercial areas, Hinderaker said.

    Today portable signs can be up 30 days and then they must be taken down for 60 days, allowing for a total of 120 days on site in a year.

    The draft code allows signs to be up 14 days and then down 14 days, but limited to 84 days on one site per year.

    Jody Boeckel, owner of Boeckel Mobile Advertising, said new restrictions on placement and the allowed display time would hurt business.

    Portable signs are an affordable way to advertise special events and fundraisers for many small businesses and nonprofit organizations, he said.

  • Billboards would also face a few new limits on where they will be allowed within the city.

    Billboards are restricted mainly to commercial areas of the city, Paulsen said.

    For example, a billboard, such as the one on Second Avenue North and Broadway, will no longer be permitted in downtown Fargo.

    The new sign code also reduces billboard sizes everywhere in the city except near the interstates and industrial areas, Hinderaker said.

    Russ Newman, owner of Newman Outdoor Signs, said existing billboards throughout most of the city are a standardized size that is used by many national brands.

    Local businesses, such as car dealerships, that advertise national products could miss out on the opportunity to use billboards, Newman said.

  • The amount of on-site signage would also be reduced.

    The maximum amount of allowed signage would go from today’s 3 square feet per lineal foot of frontage property or 40 percent of the building’s façade, to 2½ square feet and 30 percent.

  • Electronic messaging centers sparked the overhaul when residents objected to the signs near historic neighborhoods.

    The code prohibits electronic messaging centers from residential areas. It also sets a buffer zone, which limits animation and illumination near residential areas.

    “We don’t want Fargo to look like Las Vegas,” resident Wendelbo said.

    Finding balance

    City Commissioner Brad Wimmer, who sat on the committee that drafted the code, said what’s being presented is fair and balances the concerns of both neighbors and businesses.

    Several business owners felt they should have had a seat on the committee to help create the draft, but Wimmer said that would have likely drawn out the process further.

    The original draft released in March was modified at least five times through the course of seven public meetings, Hinderaker said.

    Dardis worries the draft could tarnish Fargo’s reputation as a business-friendly community.

    But Wimmer doesn’t think the changes will affect the business climate.

    “Fargo is a Mecca for the business community and the region, and that’s going to continue,” Wimmer said.

    If you go

  • What: Fargo City Commission meeting

  • When: 5 p.m. Monday

  • Where: Fargo City Hall, 207 4th St. N.

  • Online: The 42-page draft of the sign code is available at www.cityoffargo.com.


    Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511