LONG BEACH - For the Long Beach Planning Commission, the devil is in the details as they review and update the sign section of the zoning code. During the Jan. 10 meeting their main goal was to go over the definitions section of the code. Next meeting they plan on going over the regulation section.

At the same time, they are also striving to keep in mind the larger vision for the city that first prompted the formation of design review.

Commissioner Natalie Hanson said since she has been working on the codes and speaking with people, she is often asked, by both business and property owners, why they must conform to the design codes.

"They don't know what the vision is," she said, admitting she, too, was a bit confused.

"I can tell you where to find that," said Planning Commission Chair Dave Bross. He explained in the 80s the city hired a consultant to develop a theme to promote the city, draw in tourists, guide development, and create an attractive and cohesive look for the city. They settled on a theme of "early beach."

The theme is outlined in the city's comprehensive plan, a document that guides the city on future development for the next 20 years. The city plans on updating that document as well, which will require meetings and public hearings.

Bross pointed out that other cities that have adopted themes have been very successful in increasing tourism.

Commissioner Butch Currey asked if perhaps artist drawings or photos might be provided to clarify the early beach theme.

And the commission continued to work through the details of the sign code, with that vision in mind.

The sign ordinance has created controversy in the business community. While the city does not want the town to appear as one big advertisement, business owners want to attract the notice of potential customers.

In addition, there are many signs in town which do not conform to the sign code, and the commission has been working on fair and equitable ways to grandfather out those signs. The non-conforming signs have created some frustration for those businesses that have conforming signs. At the same time, non-conforming businesses feel they have a right to promote themselves in the most effective way possible.

Commissioner Robert Dennison described the business owners' predicament. "In their view, it's up to them (businesses) to get people in. In my view, the city is involved in pulling people in."

Each year the city budgets advertising money to attract people from areas such as Seattle and Portland, and beyond. So there are two layers of advertising for businesses, the outreach effort by the city, and business owners' efforts in town.

Community Development Director John Schelling said the purpose of the sign code is twofold. It preserves the aesthetic appearance of the city and, perhaps more important, it allows businesses to compete on a "level playing field," and promotes equity.

Currey, explaining the city's aversion to large signs, used an example from Commissioner Diana Tehrani. "When you have a bunch of big signs, it's like a lot of people screaming," he said.

When the commission and sign committee finish their work they will forward the code to the city council. Then a public comment period will take place along with public hearings before the code is adopted. Copies of the code are available at Long Beach City Hall on Bolstad Ave.

"I don't want this to be an exercise in futility," said Hanson, citing the length of the debate over signs, which has stretched on for years, with a hope for a positive settlement. "It's been long enough."

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