Missoula businesses sporting electronic signs got a new set of rules to follow when the city's zoning ordinance was overhauled in November 2009.

Just over a year later, it appears the new rules might not have sunk in quite yet.

At Monday's City Council meeting, Councilman Dave Strohmaier noted an abundance of electronic signs in the city out of compliance with the ordinance.

On Tuesday, he said there are sign violations in most major business corridors around the city.

"I drove down West Broadway over the weekend and probably noted a half-dozen different signs that weren't in compliance," Strohmaier said.

On Brooks Street, "half a dozen appeared to me as obviously out of compliance," he said.

Both he and Councilman Ed Childers want businesses to follow the rules so the council doesn't have to pass stricter rules.

"My intent here is to create a level playing field for everyone," Strohmaier said. "Business owners need to know the rules. The rules right now are a compromise. We all just need to get with the program and play by those rules."

Electronic signs are only allowed in certain zoning districts and have to stay within certain size parameters. Messages - or "dynamic displays" on the electronic signs - can't include features like moving animation, can't blink or flicker, and can't have text that scrolls across the screen.

A coalition of forces, including sign companies, local business representatives and city representatives, played a role in drafting the ordinance.

Missoula's Office of Planning and Grants polices the complaint-driven ordinance, employing a sign enforcement officer to investigate and deal with potential violations.

But resolving those complaints can get sticky. For instance, electronic messages have to be on the screen for at least one second and can obviously remain longer. The transition time is where it gets a little tricky. Transitions between displays must be accomplished in one second, but sometimes businesses take liberties with how one message transitions to the next. That's when letters can dissolve or flash away, said OPG planner Tom Zavitz.

The OPG gets fewer sign complaints than you'd think, Zavitz said. They might get several per month, he said, but there are months with no complaints at all. Most businesses, he said, aren't "chronic offenders."

If there is a complaint, the sign enforcement officer makes sure the sign is out of line, and then makes a call to the business to inform it of the violation. No tickets or fines are usually handed out.

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Tom Campbell, who runs a business installing electronic signs and helped craft the ordinance, estimates 80 percent of Missoula's signs are in compliance. And of those violating the ordinance, most don't know what is right and wrong, he said.

With the amount of new signs popping up, Strohmaier said he suspects many business owners don't understand or even know about the ordinance.

The Missoula Chamber of Commerce hopes a new brochure set for release will ease the confusion. The brochure of the "dos and don'ts" of electronic sign display for Missoula businesses is in draft form. The chamber helped format the electronic sign ordinance in 2009 and since recognized some business owners still aren't aware of the rules, chamber president and chief executive officer Kim Latrielle said.

Latrielle hopes to set up meetings with the city, the OPG sign ordinance enforcer and City Council members to gather opinions on the brochure.

Then, the chamber will take the information door-to-door to help businesses get educated on the ordinance and "monitor themselves," she said.

After the brochure is handed out, the chamber will also be asking business owners to register their signs with the office so they could possibly be used to help spread community notices and messages.

"They could become a very useful communication tool for the community," Latrielle said.

Addressing the flickering confusion is necessary to honor the compromise that was struck in 2009, Strohmaier said.

The chamber literature is "probably exactly what we need," he said.

Campbell worked with the city to set the ordinance and estimated the three sign companies and business groups spent more than 200 hours working on the ordinance.

Of the roughly 100 electronic signs he's counted around Missoula, most belong to small business owners. Further regulating their ability to advertise with electronic signs would eliminate an "amazing" and highly effective advertising tool for them, he said.

 

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