A Close Shave For Happy Holiday Signs

City council decides to not ban barber poles or limit certain decorations as city's sign ordinance is revised 

By Diana Samuels

Daily News Staff Writer

Photo by Kirstina Sangsahachart/Daily News

Posted: 11/10/2010 09:27:55 PM PST
Updated: 11/11/2010 08:03:10 AM PST

The Los Altos City Council came close to banning barber poles and putting time limits on displays of holiday decorations in approving a new sign ordinance Tuesday.

The council ultimately left the most severe provisions of the ordinance on the cutting room floor, including a restriction that would have barred businesses from hanging banners except for "grand opening" events.

"A previous council banned plastic furniture downtown and we made the national news," Council Member Val Carpenter said. "I really don't want to do that again with barber poles."

After making some adjustments, the council voted unanimously to pass the ordinance, which City Attorney Jolie Houston described in a staff report as an "exercise in preventive law." The city needed to revise its sign ordinance to bring it into compliance with state and federal regulations, she said.

The new ordinance was developed by a committee that included Mayor David Casas, Council Member Megan Satterlee and representatives of local businesses.

"On a practical level," Houston said, the new ordinance "does not significantly or substantially change the current regulations."

But business community members said the ordinance is complex and they could not easily compare it with the old one to see the changes. The board of the Los Altos Village Association asked the council to postpone its decision, association Executive Director Nancy Dunaway said at the meeting Tuesday.

"They see the complexity of the document," Dunaway said. "They're worried about how it is going to affect their business and they would like to proceed a little more slowly."

The proposed ordinance included provisions that would have banned digital signs and restricted the use of banners. Council members decided to keep the ban on digital signs but allow banners without restrictions while they continue to study both issues.

The ordinance's authors included the ban on barber poles because they couldn't see a way to allow them while restricting other animated "rotating cylinders," Satterlee said.

"Ultimately we were told no one is requesting barber poles anymore, haven't for years, the ones that exist are grandfathered in, and for simplification on animation (regulations) it made sense to ban them," Satterlee said. "No one on the sign committee hated barber poles, no one objected to them."

The council quickly removed the mention of the poles from the ordinance.

"I personally find (barber poles) quaint, and my question is, it hasn't been a problem in Los Altos. So why is the presumption to prohibit it?" Council Member Ron Packard said.

Council members also deleted a provision that would have limited displays of holiday decorations to 45 days each calendar year. The old ordinance said decorations were allowed "in season," wording the city had to change because it was open to interpretation, said Assistant City Manager James Walgren. The new ordinance, like the one it replaced, applies to commercial and residential properties, he said in a phone interview Wednesday. But its application to residences may have been an "unintended consequence" of the way the ordinance was written.

"There was no expectation that we would be going out and knocking on someone's door because they still had their Christmas decorations out," Walgren said.

The council expects to review the ordinance again in six months.

"I think we need to use it in practice and not just in theory," Satterlee said, "to see that it's actually having the impact we desire, which is really business as usual as opposed to a massive change to how we handle signs."

E-mail Diana Samuels at dsamuels@dailynewsgroup.com.