Recent crackdown did not come out of the blue

Ashland businesses had plenty of warning that stuffed animals, statues, flags and temporary signs that have proliferated throughout town were in violation of the city's sign and sidewalk rules, according to Code Compliance Specialist Dean Walker.

"It's not just happening in a vacuum. It's not a surprise out of nowhere," he said. "A lot of these businesses have known they were out of compliance."

City restrictions on such displays have been on the books since about the early 1980s, after community members decided to reduce sign clutter to preserve Ashland's historic appearance.

When Walker arrived on the job four years ago, he soon realized violations were everywhere. He and city Permit Center Manager Adam Hanks noticed that businesses were taking more and more liberties with the sign code.

"Businesses will keep stretching their violations because they want to be seen. It's the nature of marketing," Walker said.

But in recent years, the city government was going through turnover in many key positions, including city administrator and community development department director &

the positions with supervisory duties over code compliance staff. Walker said he and Hanks didn't feel comfortable taking major enforcement action against the sign code violations without supervisors in place.

City government has since stabilized with the hiring of City Administrator Martha Bennett in 2006 and Community Development Director Bill Molnar in 2007.

About two years ago, Walker and Hanks sent out notices of sign code violations and, as expected, got strong reactions from business owners. Walker said he then went door-to-door, suggesting to business owners that they work together and take their concerns about the sign code to the city.

"With an extraordinarily small exception, that kind of alliance didn't happen," he said.

In the fall of 2006, Walker said Hanks sent out letters to businesses that the city would enforce the sign code the following spring. That move got no voluntary compliance.

The issue of sign code violations attracted media and community attention in 2007, when businessman Lloyd Haines illegally installed murals on the underside of the Lithia Way bridge near Water Street without city or Oregon Department of Transportation permission. Sculptor Kevin Christman also learned he could not install a sculpture of an angel in front of Soundpeace downtown because of the city's sign code ban on three-dimensional humans, animals or merchandise.

Walker said he and Hanks consulted with other city staff before sending out letters this spring warning businesses of the widespread violations.

"We knew it would get a lot of negative attention, so we ran it by (City Administrator) Martha (Bennett) and (Community Development Director) Bill (Molnar), and even to some degree the legal department, to give people a heads-up and make sure it was something they could back," Walker said. "We also wanted them to understand it's been a while since it's been enforced. We got the nod."

Walker said individual members of the Ashland City Council have sometimes sent e-mails or talked to him about why the city hasn't enforced the sign code against specific violations they have noticed around town. But he said it was his and Hank's awareness of numerous ongoing violations, not outside pressure from councilors or the mayor, that led them to send out the letters this spring.

Mayor John Morrison said when he was elected nearly four years ago, he saw examples of the city not enforcing its laws.

He said the recent letters notifying businesses about sign and sidewalk violations are consistent with directions he gave to Bennett when she was hired as city administrator to create a well-organized city government.

"When we have violations over a long time, there is an expectation that it is OK. I've felt if we have a violation, it is not OK," Morrison said. "But we do need to periodically review our code to make sure it's consistent with community values."

In the meantime, Walker said the city has only warned businesses and has no immediate plans to fine any. Fines would have to be determined by a judge. Although fines could reach up to $500 per day, Walker said hardly anyone has been fined that amount when the city has taken enforcement action in other cases.

A newly formed Downtown Task Force, with members appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council, will meet during July and then make recommendations for possible short-term changes to the city code. The task force will continue meeting to look at long-term issues.

"I've been told to back off and hit the pause button for a while," Walker said.

He said the difficult part will be making changes to the sign code that allow things the community wants, like teddy bears, while keeping out objectionable items such as 12-foot tall plastic hot dogs. He said the spirit of the sign code is not in question, although the code itself probably needs to be updated.

"How do we keep out the things we all agree we don't want? The design of a sign code is a very complicated thing," Walker said.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or To post a comment, visit .

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