LONG BEACH - Although change is a sign of the times, it still might surprise people that sign zoning codes in Long Beach are about to change. The question is what form those changes will comprise.

Forget about tsunamis, development, salmon fishing or the threat of the avian flu, all anyone has to do to start a real knock-down drag-out fight in Long Beach is mention sign regulations. For years, the zoning codes covering signs have been debated, analyzed, reviewed and rewritten. But after innumerable committee meetings and hours of discussion, it seems a compromise is about to be reached.

A draft of the new codes will be presented at the next regularly scheduled planning commission meeting, 7 p.m. on April 11. Copies of the draft can be obtained at Long Beach City Hall, 115 Bolstad Ave. in Long Beach.

According to the code, sign regulations are needed because, "The orderly development of the community requires striking a balance between the needs of businesses to advertise and the desire to maintain an aesthetically pleasing environment."

"The [sign regulation] system that we have right now is not working for our community," said City Administrator Robert Strope at one sign meeting.

Business owners have complained about others who have not complied with regulations, giving those businesses an unfair advantage. Other businesses have complained current provisions are too strict. They can't maintain "non-conforming signs," signs that are too big, too high or lit from within. Nothing can be done to those signs unless they were completely replaced or removed, a potentially great financial cost and loss of investment.

Other people have complained about signs that are abandoned, advertising businesses no longer in existence, shabby, or just plain ugly. They worry those signs give the city a rundown appearance and discourage tourists from returning.

"We've got to do something to get away from those big gaudy signs," said Planning Commission Chair David Bross.

And the city had no real provisions to enforce the codes except for denying additional sign permits for a business. Some businesses choose to ignore even that aspect of the code, creating "illegal signs." Even then, the city cannot act.

The proposed revised codes have attempted to resolve those issues.

In some instances the codes have been relaxed. Internally lit signs, such as neon signs, will be allowed outside of downtown along Pacific Avenue, where speed limits are higher and there are fewer pedestrians.

A sunset clause of 10 years has been established for businesses that want to keep their nonconforming signs, instead of demanding they be removed right away. But each year the businesses must pay a nonconforming sign permit fee, which will increase incrementally over the years. Minor repairs can be made to nonconforming signs as long as the cost is less than 25 percent of the replacement cost for the sign, or $2,500, whichever is less.

"We're allowing nonconforming signs for a period of time so it makes sense that they be kept up," said Bross.

At the same time, the code allows the city to take action against violators. Those sign owners will receive a written notification of the violation giving them 10 days to correct any problem. After that, "the Building Inspector shall have the authority to immediately remove or cause to be removed any sign, at the expense of the owner."

Planning commission members hope citizens will come to the April 11 meeting and voice their opinion on the changes. They then hope to present the draft to the city council to start the final public hearing and approval process.

For more information contact Long Beach City Hall at 642-4421.

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