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Proposed JPB sign rules move forward

The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board Sign Task Force's work is essentially done.

The task force made a presentation of the final draft of the JPB sign regulations Tuesday night at Bemidji City Hall.

Assistant planner Andrew Mack discussed proposed changes. With only two people in the audience -- Mel Milender, planning administrator, and Ross Lewis, owner of Ross Lewis Sign Co. -- the meeting was brief.

The draft regulations will now go before the Joint Planning Commission Sept. 24 for discussion and input. The JPB will conduct a public hearing on the recommended changes at its Oct. 14 regular meeting.

"I think we ended up with a pretty good product," Mack said.

"You're never going to make everybody happy, but it's time to wrap up the process," he said, noting that the good thing about zoning ordinances is that they're not set in stone.

While some changes may be unpopular, others will benefit business owners, such as a new wall sign calculation method that will loosen some restrictions. A couple of businesses are waiting for that change to occur before making applications.

Also new is a 10-foot reduction in setback as an incentive to encourage signs of lower heights. "You'd be surprised how important 10 feet can be," Mack said.

The proposed regulations also create new permit opportunities for special event signage, with more signage allowed for shorter duration.

Special events signage may include banners, bannerettes (4 square feet or less), portable signs, pennants, streamers, balloons and inflatable devices, tents with signs, and searchlights.

Mack acknowledged there are going to be signs that will remain non-compliant, noting that the signs will be allowed to remain and can be repaired but not substantially changed.

Lewis brought up issues with signage on multiple-tenant buildings and wayfinding signs for medical facilities, but "other than that, I think you did a great job with it," he told Mack.

"Andrew's done a great job ... It's very comprehensive and easy to understand," Lewis said, noting that the pendulum had swung from one extreme to the other but is now reaching balance.

The joint planning office has limited planning staff to enforce regulations, so the business community will be expected to take some responsibility for self-policing.

"Mel and I will tell you, it's the two of us -- we don't have time to go around chasing down every banner that's been up 31 days," Mack said.

Milender said the main reason for control of signage is aesthetics.

"I have faith in the business community of Bemidji that for the most part, they're all in agreement that the idea of a northwoods community is good for Bemidji," he said. "There are different ideas what this means, but for most people, they want good aesthetics."

Chamber ties

The Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce representative on the task force is Kevin Williamson, owner of the Super 8 and the Peppercorn Restaurant, who stressed that he wants his signage to meet restrictions and would like to lead by example.

Some of the task force members said Williamson could go to the Chamber to help get businesses on board with the new regulations.

"A word from you would be more valuable than a word from us," task force member Becky Livermore said.

"We're trying to make that connection," Mack said. "My experience in dealing with this sort of task force in a community is if it's in a vacuum, it's not nearly as effective as if you involve affected players in the community. Sign regulations are a perfect example."

"Almost every previous ordinance written was created that way, though," Lewis said. "Most of the time we had no ideas there were changes coming until we went in to apply for a permit and there was a change."

Williamson suggested that the task force host a Chamber After Hours event to educate business owners.

"It's the end of the day, people are in a pretty good mood," he said. "It's a great time for education."