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Santa Monica Businesses Need to Fix Their Signs, Officials Say

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

May 1, 2013 -- Santa Monica officials launched an education campaign last week to let local businesses know how their signs might be violating an ordinance that has been on the books since 1985 and that critics say has gone largely unenforced.

Starting last week, the City started sending out letters and information flyers to local businesses, laying the groundwork for a renewed effort to enforce the ordinance to crack down on everything from signs on poles and most neon signs to commercial banners and rooftop signs.

"The Code Compliance Division recently underwent many changes, one of which was to implement a pro-active enforcement program to address areas of significant noncompliance issues and complaints,” said Joe Trujillo, the City's code compliance manager.

“We look to educate residents and businesses about the requirements of the City's laws and regulations before we enforce them," Trujillo said.

City officials maintain that the ordinance is designed to prevent blight. “Maintaining visual aesthetics is important to our community and helps to keep Santa Monica vibrant and attractive,” officials said.

This most recent effort to enforce the sign ordinance is one of several launched over the course of the ordinance's nearly 30-year life, and some remain skeptical.

“It's never been enforced and it's only been enforced randomly,” said former Council member Kelly Olsen. “There's no political will for it.”

Olsen was chair of the Planning Commission when, in 2002, the City overhauled the ordinance to allow signs that didn't jive with the code but were “meritorious” because they were either historically or artistically significant.

In 2000, officials estimated that there were more than 1,000 illegal signs in the city.
But nearly two years after the City was scheduled to begin enforcing its 15-year-old sign ordinance, not one of the more than 1,000 illegal signs has been cited by code enforcers. (“Troubling Signs,” February 22, 2002)

Then-Planning Director Susanne Frick said that the City simply didn't have the resources to handle the volume of complaints.

Joan Charles, who was on the Architectural Review Board (ARB) from 1999 to 2008, said it was frustrating laying the groundwork for policies that were never enforced.

“I think my main problem with rules is if you are going to have them, they should be applied evenly and to everyone,” she said. “If not, they should be eliminated.”

In 2011, the City tweaked its ordinance, allowing signs that project from the sides of buildings and free-standing sandwich board signs along Main Street that are on private property.

The City “has been enforcing (the sign ordinance) all along,” said Laura Beck, City liaison to the Architectural Review Board. “We've always enforced our sign code.”

Trujillo said his compliance officers will be stepping up their enforcement.

“In the next few months, we will be focusing on unpermitted and prohibited signage, particularly window and internally illuminated signs,” he said.

Olsen isn't optimistic the crackdown will make a dent.

“I guarantee you that within a short period of time, someone will object in the business community and the City Manager or someone in the City Council will privately say, 'Don't bother these people.'”

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