Colorado Springs hasn’t paid much attention to business signs in years, but that didn’t stop Larry Barrett from counting the potentially illegal signs in one small area south of downtown.
Barrett, a consultant and local crusader for better government control of signs and billboards, found 28 temporary banners in a five-block stretch of Nevada Avenue, north of Cheyenne Road.
He shared that information as part of a report to City Council in April, on the day Council voted unanimously to hire someone to enforce the new ordinance that went into effect April 1.
The ordinance includes new size guidelines for businesses and tougher regulations for temporary signs like banners. But the real change comes from the addition of A land-use inspector and sign specialist who will process sign permits and enforce the code.
The new position, approved April 24 by City Council, will cost the city about $100,000 a year, a price tag that includes money for a city vehicle, administrative costs, a salary of $3,488 to $4,360 a month and benefits.
It will be funded with new and increased signage fees and enforcement fines, which will combine to produce an estimated $47,500 a year from businesses.
The position listing closed this week and the new inspector could be on the job by the end of the month.
It’s been almost four years since city land-use review office has had anyone to enforce the sign ordinance, said Brett Veltman, development review enterprise manager. The inspector who handled that retired in 2008 and was never replaced. Veltman and other inspectors assumed some of the duties.
“But signage just doesn’t hold as great a priority as life and safety,” Veltman said. “Over the years, enforcement has dwindled to the occasional gross violation.”
Banners like the yellow ones advertising a new restaurant along South Nevada Avenue are not allowed in the new sign code. Banners must be attached to a building, not between posts or planted in landscaped areas. They also require a permit. Only 10 businesses applied for a permit to hang a banner in 2011.
There are almost that many hanging within a single block now on South Nevada.
Barrett, who owns Barrett Consulting Associates and is involved with Scenic America, said he found a total of 338 signs in that five-block area of South Nevada, not counting highway or human signs.
“There’s a lot of sign overload and sign clutter and people get so used to it that they tune it out,” Barrett said. “You put up one more sign, you think people are going to notice your business?”
Veltman said the argument for toughening up the sign code and adding enforcement is to improve business districts.
“Entire streetscapes start decaying,” Veltman said. “There’s so much going on it becomes a visual blight.”
While owners might put signs out to advertise and draw people in, there get to be so many signs, the individual messages are replaced with a cluttered claustrophobic feeling that drives customers out of an area, he said.
Barrett said the abundance of signage takes away from the natural beauty that draws people to the area.
“We’ve had a very permissive sign code. Period,” said Gary Bradley, a commercial real estate broker with Bradley Commercial Group.
He said the sign clutter hurts property values and makes Colorado Springs look like a city that doesn’t take care of its neighborhoods.
Bradley took a client around to look at real estate about a year ago. The client wanted to move his business from another state to somewhere along the Front Range. After looking at properties, the client listed the sign code as one of the reasons he didn’t think Colorado Springs would be a good investment.
“I think it’s a matter of caring about the city and what we want the city to look like,” Bradley said.
He holds up Littleton, Breckenridge and even Manitou Springs as examples of successful communities with tough sign codes and a clean, progressive feeling.
Manitou boasts 100 percent occupancy in its retail zone. The town reached that benchmark last summer and leaders said it was part of an organized effort to beautify the downtown core.
Manitou Springs Planning Director Dan Folke says Manitou hasn’t made any major changes to its sign code since 2002. But the town increased enforcement efforts in the past couple years.
Rather than taking a punitive approach, the town did a lot of education, Folke said. There were issues with banners in the past, but those are few now.
Veltman said Colorado Springs will also take a friendly approach to enforcement. He expects that most business owners who have problematic signs will comply after the first contact with the new sign specialist and most won’t face fines.
Jeff Cahill, who owns Quality Signs & Designs at 2870 N. Meridian Road in northeast El Paso County is nervous about city enforcement and says he thinks the new ordinance is too restrictive.
“A banner is the quickest, easiest way for a business to advertise,” he said. “If they see a downturn, they can’t go out and spend thousands on TV or newspaper advertising. But they can spend a couple hundred on a banner.”
Cahill makes very few banners. His business relies primarily on high-end permanent signs, which he doesn’t expect to be impacted by the new guidelines. But he’s worried the new ordinance and its stand against banners will hurt businesses.
“They want to make this a Breckenridge or an Aspen,” Cahill said. “It’s not. Down here in the flatland is a commercial area.”
He remembers businesses complaining about aggressive sign enforcement in years past and doesn’t agree with the argument that aesthetics should interfere with business.
“I’ve never seen a travel brochure for any place that said to go there because they have fewer signs,” Cahill said.
Jack Frost, managing partner with Sign Shop Illuminated at 3505 E. Platte Ave., says he’s on board with the new ordinance and enforcement. He understands the complaints he hears about sign clutter. And he’s not worried the changes will hurt his business. In fact, he’s excited about one addition to the new ordinance.
The city will now allow electronic signs.
“That should be beneficial to all of us,” Frost said.
Electronic signs, which will have to abide by certain restrictions, will offer an alternative to banners at shopping centers where businesses can put messages on common displays.
Frost said he believes a lot of business owners will be excited by the flexibility and the uncluttered appearance electronic signs offer.
He hasn’t heard from many business owners interested in adding them, but, he said, “I think there are a lot of businesses that don’t know about this yet.”