Trinidad’s downtown has plenty of charm, with Victorian era buildings, colorful storefronts and brick-lined streets. City Council, in an effort to keep that authentic character alive and well, unanimously approved the first reading of an emergency ordinance imposing a moratorium on certain types of lighted signage at a special meeting on Friday, April 20 at City Hall.
The proposed ordinance says its purpose is: “to impose a moratorium upon the approval, processing or acceptance of any application for any lighted digital message boards and/or signs that exhibit flashing, moving, blinking, chasing or any other animated or transitional effects.”
City Development Services Director Tara Marshall said there had been plenty of recent interest in the community about digital signage. “We have a code that doesn’t address those problems,” Marshall said. “So what we would like to do is halt applications for this period of time, until we can bring you a new code to consider.
“When we consider the new code, we’ll have the discussion I believe you’re asking about. We’ll explain that in detail. We’ll talk about what you want to see, and what kind of code you want to put in place. We’ll put that code in place, and then we’ll open applications back up.”
Council member Anthony Mattie said it was his understanding that the current digital signage in place at Cooke Motors, located at 426 E. Main St., was in violation of the current code. Marshall said the car dealership had been granted a variance on the code’s provisions and went on to explain why that was so. “It was given a variance, but on its merits, it’s not allowable in the code,” she said. “The Planning, Zoning and Variance Commission gave a variance for a sign that includes flashing, blinking, moving and transitional effects, and those are against the code now.”
The dealership is set back from the street and not all that visible to passersby, and because of that situation got the variance because it was able to show that the lack of lighted signage created a hardship for its business. “Because that (the variance) was given as a variance due to a hardship because of the lot, we created a situation where we gave what was perceived as an economic advantage to one business who had a hardship on their lot,” Marshall said. “But other businesses couldn’t qualify because they don’t have an equal hardship.
“Hardship exists in the code as a variance. It states that the law is configured in a way that presents a hardship to you.” She said that, if a motorist were driving down Main Street, Cooke Motors sits back from the business next door, a situation that could not be changed. The owner of Cooke Motors said he felt that situation was an existing hardship that was not of his own making.
The commission also had to consider whether or not the variance would alter the historic character of the surrounding area, ruling that the variance that was approved was the minimum that could be approved to alleviate the hardship, she said.
Marshall said the conversation at Friday’s special meeting, was really the same conversation Council would have when it decided whether or not to adopt the new code. “The question for today is that we had a situation where applications are coming in for signs that people are interested in having and we don’t have a code that addresses those.”
Marshall promised to provide more information on the setback issue to all of the Council members. Council member Joe Bonato asked about the lighted signage at the Main Street Liquor location at 803 E. Main St., and Marshall explained the situation.
“So the liquor store is an example of a sign that went up without any plan permit,” she said. “It includes a lighted digital message board. We contacted them and asked them to turn off the message board. They are producing a sign permit for the sign that exists, minus the digital message board, right now. We’ll have to see where the code ends up.”
She said there was a draft proposal for a new signage code, but she wanted to bring it before the Planning, Zoning and Variance Commission and have it reviewed by City staff before bringing it to Council sometime in June.
City Attorney Les Downs said there was another digital sign that was approved for the new LaPuerta development. “I don’t want you to think we’re glossing over the subject.
Marshall noted that Attorney Downs had participated in all of the discussions about possible changes to the signage code. “The six criteria for a variance include that the application for a variance includes the minimum relief you can give the applicant to remediate the hardship. So Planning and Zoning gave them a sign in the digital location to remediate the hardship. The question that came up in the hearing was, is the digital component of the sign the minimum you could give them to remediate the hardship? Was the digital sign enough to remediate the hardship?”
The owners of the LaPuerta development decided to ask the Planning and Zoning Commission for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) so they could have a digital sign at their location, something that’s within the Commission’s purview. The Commission approved the sign by a 3-1 vote. “Staff is requesting that you close the door that’s been opened. Just close the door,” she said.
Staff requested that the Council end the CUP application process related to signage until Council approved a new signage code, Marshall said. Bonato said he didn’t want to see Trinidad have too much glitzy signage going into the future. Marshall noted that the City’s Home Rule Charter allowed emergency ordinances, and the vote was taken.
Assistant City Manager Audra Garrett asked for a second Special Meeting of Council be held, to include a public hearing, due to time considerations, and that Special Meeting will be held at 4 p.m. on Thursday, May 3. A final vote on the Emergency Ordinance will then be taken.