OPINION: Signs of the times

Photo collage, courtesy of City of Sarnia planning and building department.

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.

And according to some residents, they really are blockin’ out the scenery and breakin’ our minds.

But not everyone finds mobile signs ugly or flashing electronic message boards an eyesore.

To business, they’re an effective advertising medium and an essential way to reach customers in a hectic, mobile society.

On June 30, city council will try to square that circle when it considers the final draft of a new municipal sign bylaw.

The 275-page document is five years in the making and pulls together input gathering that began in 2010 and the sign lessons learned from 12 other Ontario municipalities.

The coming changes are long overdue. Sarnia’s current 20-year-old bylaw ignores emerging technologies and new advertising trends.

The Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce urged its members to complete bylaw feedback surveys last week. Anything that improves public safety is good, but council needs to know the proposed changes will impact local business, it said.

The bylaw would, for the first time, set restrictions on mobile signs, in height (maximum 2.5 metres) setback (one metre from roads) and property frontage (minimum 30 metres).

Mobile signs would also have to be 25 metres from homes, 50 metres apart and not contain any electronic messages.

But the new frontier is electronic message boards. Because animated signs can negatively impact a streetscape and seriously distract motorists, their proposed setback is 200 metres from homes, open spaces and the waterfront.

They would also have limits set on the brightness (requiring automatic dimmers), location and the speed of a message (minimum 30 seconds within 30 metres of an intersection.)

Also coming are new enforcement powers.

Currently, people set up mobile and wire “push in” signs on public and private land without permits, and city hall’s hands are more or less tied.

Staff is working on guidelines that would allow charities and community groups to use signs on public land for up to two weeks.

Alan Shaw, Sarnia’s chief building official, says the draft bylaw is an attempt to balance business needs against public complaints.

“One group is saying the signs are too much, too offensive, too much in your face. They’re saying they’re too bright, they’re too bold, they’re too crowded and there’s too many of them,” he said.

“The other side we’re getting is the business side, saying that we really need these types of devices to do our business, and government should stay out.

“When we drafted up the bylaw we tried to meet in the middle somewhere.”

– George Mathewson