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City considering revising sign code for billboards, businesses

Signs and marquees in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Signs in Mitchell could be seeing some new rules soon.

City leaders are drafting updates to Mitchell's policies for signage, including on buildings and billboards. Mitchell City Planner Neil Putnam said the regulations are in need of updating because of new technology and a series of legal rulings, including a key U.S. Supreme Court case in 2015 that tightened governmental abilities to regulate signage based on content.

Mitchell currently has a section of ordinances to regulate signage in the city but that's currently part of the city's building regulations, not part of the zoning rules. Putnam said how the approval structure is set-up will be a decision for the city Planning Commission and eventually the Mitchell City Council. Putnam delivered a presentation about the plan Monday during the city Planning Commission meeting, which was a discussion item only, with no action taken.

He said sign laws across the country were brought into the spotlight after a Supreme Court ruling in which the court said that local governments can't limit roadside signage based on what they say, or the content on the signage. Governments can still regulate the timing, place or location and the manner, while also prohibiting obscene material.

"The bottom line is that you have to have compelling governmental interest," said Putnam, about restricting signage.

The proposed code would break up the city's signage into two categories: exempt and permit signs. Exempt signage — which includes small business direction signs, drive-thru menu boards and temporary signs — would not be regulated by the city's code, while permit signs would require city approval.

Putnam said some signs larger than a pre-designated size could also require permits.

The permit division would cover the following: monument signs, freestanding signs, projection signs, off-premise billboards, electronic message centers or any signs that illuminate, and historic district signage.

Off-premise billboards would be designated for specific commercial corridors, Putnam said. For example, that includes parts of Burr Street, Havens Avenue, Ohlman Street, Sanborn Boulevard, Main Street and Spruce Street and the downtown district. Other specific streets and areas have not been designated, while existing signs and structures would be grandfathered in.

Currently, Mitchell has some rules tighter than state regulations. For example, the city requires billboards to have a setback of 10 feet, while state regulations allow as close as 3 feet, because billboards located too far off a roadway can be a safety hazard if drivers have to turn their heads to see them. Mitchell also limits the size of off-premise billboards to 300 square feet without a conditional use permit, which would be signs of 20 by 15 square feet or 30 by 10. State rules allow up to 1,200 square feet but no larger than 30 feet tall or 60 feet long.

The rules would also try to more tightly regulate abandoned and nuisance signs, but Putnam said some of them might have to be regulated on a case-by-case basis.

"It could come down to how you would remedy the situation," he said.

Still to be decided is how the city's approval process would work, deciding if it will mirror the variance and conditional use permit process, or how much administrative discretion will be enacted.

"There's a reason we're doing this and there's been some recent litigation against what we can and can't do," he said. "Moreover, there's some changes in the technology world in signs and new construction (in the city), so some of our traffic patterns have changed."

Putnam said the goal is to have the code be more user-friendly and to continue to be consistent with the DOT. He plans to take feedback from residents, sign companies and interested parties.

The Planning Commission will likely continue to discuss the matter at future meetings, including defining the commercial corridors and historic or downtown districts to allow certain signage.