What’s in a sign?
Signage in Sonoma has not always been a happy experience. Just ask Dan Roseland who, after buying the Chevrolet dealership on West Napa Street in 2007, wanted to make one simple change to an existing sign, substituting the word “Sonoma” for the name of the dealership’s former owner. But the Design Review Commission told Roseland the change would trigger a rule that would require a $40,000 modification. Nothing would have changed in the sign’s dimensions, color or appearance. It was a one-word change for $40,000.
That, of course, was ridiculous and Roseland appealed to the City Council, which overturned the Design Review Commission and sanity prevailed.
Roseland wasn’t the only victim of illogical sign rules. When City Councilmember Joanne Sanders posted an A-frame sign, less than five-feet high, outside her Broadway employment agency, she was told it wasn’t legal. The sign was in her yard, not on the sidewalk, and it advertised jobs passing students could review as they walked to and from Sonoma Valley High School. Still, that sign had to go and for Sanders there was no appeal.
But that kind of misguided, bureaucratic rule-making began to abate in June 2009 when the City Council met with the Design Review Commission to begin the process of revising the city’s sign ordinance with the specific objective of making it more business friendly.
The DRC then initiated a series of on-going meetings and study sessions culminating with a set of revisions approved by the City Council and allowing, among other things, for a provision that most freestanding sidewalk signs need only administrative approval and not the cumbersome and time-consuming review by the DRC.
Enter Sheana Davis, proprietor of The Epicurean Connection on West Napa Street, who shortly after opening last fall, installed a sign with cute cut-outs where customers or mere passersby could insert their heads for funny photographs.
All was well for the first few months, but then in May, Davis got a notice from the city that someone had filed a complaint about her sign. She wasn’t told what the specific offense was but she was advised a permit was required for the sign, which, she pointed out, met city size requirements.
She filed a permit application the same day and left the sign in place, believing that with the application in process she could legally display what had become a significant attraction for her business. That resulted in a notice that she would be fined $500 a day until the sign was removed. After a quick clarification with the planning department the fine notice was rescinded, and now Davis awaits the judgment of the Design Review Commission, which will consider her sign application next week.
We understand the need for design review and we respect most of the decisions the commission makes. But past history makes us nervous. On Saturday, Davis’ staff counted 307 people who stopped to pose with her sign. That’s foot-traffic pulled off the Plaza in a direction where commerce traditionally dries up.
Davis’ sign isn’t just good for Davis, it’s good for commerce on West Napa Street. We hope the Design Review Commission gets the point.