ENVIRONMENT: Signs of the times – Tougher Traverse City Sign Ordinance more in sync with surrounding townships

TRAVERSE CITY – Business owners said they wanted to see fewer and smaller commercial signs in Traverse City.

Sometimes you get what you wish for.

A tougher Traverse City Sign Ordinance is now on the books, thanks to a collaborative effort between the City and the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.

“The old ordinance was rather permissive,” said Traverse City Zoning Administrator Kirk Harrington. “Without a doubt, it was the most permissive sign ordinance of the surrounding townships.”

It was, in fact, pressure from the surrounding townships which initially caused the City to tackle the old ordinance, which was adopted in 1981, and draft one more in line with the sign restrictions of neighboring townships, Harrington said.

The former ordinance allowed up to 150 square feet of sign area per side on a freestanding sign and 17 percent of a building’s ground floor wall area for signage, Harrington said. It was primarily franchise-type operations that had the bigger signs, he added.

The Chamber became actively involved in the drafting process after results from an internal membership survey revealed that the majority wanted to see fewer and smaller signs within the city limits, said Keith Charters, project coordinator for New Designs for Growth, a Chamber sub-committee.

The survey was sent to the Chamber’s 3,000 members, Charters said, as part of work related to the Grand Traverse Bay Regional Development Guidebook, a manual on growth management and quality of life in the five-county region. A “high response” to the survey determined, among other things, that 74 percent wanted smaller signs and 73 percent wanted fewer signs within the city limits.

The new sign ordinance, which received final approval by the City Commission this past December, allows a maximum of 40 square feet of sign area per side for a freestanding sign on all properties with 25 to 100 feet of frontage.

For larger business parcels, the ordinance allows size increments based on frontage up to a maximum of an 80 square-foot sign, Harrington said. For ground floor wall signs, the percentage of space was reduced from 17 percent to 15 percent, with a maximum of 50 square feet on a building.

In terms of the number of signs allowed, Harrington said one freestanding sign is allowed per street frontage. On exceptionally large parcels, up to three signs are permitted, though the additional signs must be smaller. Businesses are allowed to split up the building space dedicated to signage, as long as it doesn’t exceed 50 square feet.

“It’s not perfect,” Harrington said of the revised ordinance, “but it’s much better.”

He also noted the final approval process was a smooth one, saying, “To my recollection, it was the only time an ordinance was adopted without a negative comment.”

Charters said the major issue to come out of the sign ordinance revision process was how non-conforming signs were to come into conformity. The City has statutory authority to require that signs be in conformity by a specified time. Townships, on the other hand, don’t have that authority and so conformity issues are “grandfathered.” The sign committee was in favor of this method and was successful in getting the City to change its position and not set a rigid time for businesses to comply, he said.

Harrington expects to start seeing action by affected businesses come spring since the revised ordinance was passed mid-winter. BIZNEWS