County proceeds with sign allowance changes

The effort to allow for community identification or point of interest directional signs in public right-of-way now moves to an outreach program with community groups and other stakeholders working to develop technical guidelines for a new policy.

A 5-0 San Diego County Board of Supervisors vote Oct. 31 received a feasibility report from county staff and directed the county’s chief administrative officer to initiate outreach with community planning and sponsor groups, civic groups, and external stakeholders to develop technical guidelines using the applicant-initiated process addressed in the feasibility report. County staff will provide proposed amendments to relevant ordinances and policies to allow the permitting and installation of certain signs and banners within public right-of-way and will return to the Board of Supervisors within one year for potential adoption of the changes.

“This basically will direct the staff to work with the stakeholders and come back with a very specific ordinance for us to adopt,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

On March 28, the Board of Supervisors approved updates to the county’s Zoning Ordinance including provisions to allow for community identification signs over roads. The previous ordinance required such signs to be located on private property. The amendments also increased the height limit for community identification signs but did not increase the limit on the number of signs or eliminate the site plan requirement and associated public review, and any sign over public right-of-way will require approval by the county’s Department of Public Works to ensure that the location, height, and design does not adversely affect public health, safety, or general welfare.

The changes in the Zoning Ordinance did not include any corresponding change in Board of Supervisors policies. County policies and ordinances restrict signs in public right-of-way intended to identify communities, provide directional guidance to local points of interest, or designate the significance of historical artifacts or buildings. Some incorporated cities in San Diego County, as well as some other county governments, allow public right-of-way to be used for monument signs, banners, and other types of signs which help out-of-town guests find services and points of interest, and those signs can also enhance community character for residents.

“These signs and banners in the public right-of-way are very important,” Jacob said.

Several of the county’s communities have sought to use county right-of-way for signage to identify and distinguish their communities to visitors and neighbors, establish a sense of community character, or provide information to visitors about points of interest or commercial districts. “We don’t have a means to do that right now,” Jacob said.

On June 20, the county supervisors voted 5-0 to direct the chief administrative officer to develop proposed amendments to board policies and ordinances necessary to authorize the placement of monument, gateway, community identification, and directional signs in county-maintained right-of-way and to report back to the supervisors in 120 days. The county staff activity included researching ordinances of other jurisdictions while ensuring that the revised ordinance is not at the expense of safety for motorists, pedestrians, or bicyclists.

The feasibility report indicated the relevant ordinances and board policies which would require amendments and noted the need to develop detailed guidelines on size, location, and design. California Environmental Quality Act review will also be needed. The environmental review will acknowledge that signs and banners in public right-of-way within scenic areas could cause cumulative visual impacts, and location of any sign or banner must minimize hazards to all roadway users and must not detract from efficient road use.

The applicant would be responsible for production, design, manufacture, procurement, installation, maintenance, and removal functions, and a licensed contractor would be required for permanent signs. If a Business Improvement District is created (none currently exist in unincorporated San Diego County) the management and permitting process for temporary banners could be delegated to that district although policies and guidelines would need to be developed.

Amendments would be necessary to Board Policy J-5 addressing signage in right-of-way, Zoning Ordinance section 6200 covering off-premise sign regulations, and County Code section 51.101 focusing on signs, marquees, and awnings.

Permanent signs could include gateway community identification signs, directional way finding and monument signs, and neighborhood watch signs. Gateway community identification signs would be non-commercial, civic-oriented decorative signs which identify the primary entrances into defined town centers, welcome travelers, and express a community’s sense of identity and could be either on the ground or over a street depending on community character and design standards. Directional way finding and monument signs would consist of a network of permanent directional and destination signs strategically placed in or near established town centers to provide visitors with guidance to prominent civic, cultural, visitor, and recreational destinations within a specified region. Neighborhood watch signs would be in conjunction with a neighborhood watch program to deter potential criminals.

Temporary signs announcing or promoting a community event could include vertical street pole banners and horizontal banners spanning the roadway from dedicated structural poles on each side of the road.

The process will include a Planning Commission public hearing. The county’s Department of Planning and Development Services oversees zoning matters while the Department of Public Works is responsible for county right-of-way in roads. The county’s Department of Parks and Recreation is a possible beneficiary of a more flexible ordinance.

“I look forward to seeing the final program back before the board as soon as possible,” Jacob said.

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