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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Adult store sign approved, with caveats

Another standing-room-only crowd filled Lincoln City's council chambers Tuesday night to await the planning commission's decision regarding the appeal of an approved sign permit.

Most of them were disappointed by the outcome of another marathon session, which didn't end until a quarter past midnight.

Commissioners Polly Haehl, Tim Crenshaw, Jim Kusz, Char Brown, Randy Butts and Erick Feuerborn unanimously denied the appeal and upheld the planning department's decision to grant the sign permit (Richard Emery had a pre-arranged absence) - with a few added conditions. Getting there took another three hours of public testimony and commission discussion held against a backdrop of controversy.

The focus is a freestanding illuminated sign proposed for placement in a prominent position next to Highway 101 to serve as a beacon for Imagine That! - an adult "superstore" housed in the lower level of the Swap Shop building at 2159 NW Hwy 101 on property owned by Curt Curtis and Myron Ace. Pastor Steve Waterman of St. Peter the Fisherman Lutheran Church filed the appeal of the planning department's Dec. 1, 2005 decision to grant the sign permit, and nearly 150 residents showed up to support his effort during five hours of testimony and acrimony during the planning commission's Jan. 3 session. The commissioners granted a request to continue the hearing to Jan. 17, leaving the door open to additional testimony.

Opponents sent petitions, letters, e-mails, and other materials indicating their disdain for the sign and the business itself.

"I probably should have put a warning on your packets," said Richard Townsend, the city's planning and community development director. "Some of it is pretty graphic."

Believing the lot lacked the required street frontage to allow a 52-square-foot sign, planning officials initially denied the permit application submitted Oct. 17, 2005. City ordinances do not allow freestanding signs on lots with less than 50 feet of street frontage. After discovering that the frontage met the requirement, they reversed the decision, with a stipulation limiting the sign to 50 square feet, the maximum allowed for that size lot.

Illuminated signage requires notification of the approval to all property owners within 100 feet of the proposed sign location.

The application featured an artistic rendering of the sign and its proposed content. The words "adult superstore" caught the attention of those nearby property owners, and word quickly spread about the nature of the business, eventually leading to Waterman's appeal, which he filed Dec. 12.

Context, content, and the carnal nature of the business figured prominently in those objections.

The appeal, however, required a focus on sign design and construction details.

Lincoln City attorney Russell Baldwin represented the property owners and Brandon Howard from Eugene-based ES & A Sign and Awning, the company contracted to erect the sign.

In a Dec. 21 letter to Townsend, Baldwin asked city officials to dismiss the appeal because Waterman lacked standing. He argued that Waterman and the church failed to meet all four requirements for filing an appeal under city ordinances. Baldwin said the church did not qualify as an affected party; failed to specify either the interpretation under appeal or the basis for it; and failed to designate whether or not the decision under appeal was a discretionary one involving a land use matter.

"Since the appellant has failed to satisfy the requirements of the ordinance, the appeal must fail, and should therefore be properly dismissed," Baldwin stated. "There is no actual controversy. The property owner is entitled to the sign permit applied for under the applicable ordinances as a matter of law."

Those on Waterman's side of the issue disagreed and expressed their support for the appeal throughout the often-tense Jan. 3 session. Most of them returned Tuesday night to learn the outcome.

For the first two hours, the commissioners focused on three public hearings pertaining to other matters before again turning their attention to the sign permit. The hearing took an aura of deja-vu as Baldwin and Gary Ellingson held another verbal sparring match.

Baldwin invoked the constitutional issue of free speech infringement, arguing that some of the objections amounted to an attempt to regulate the sign's content.

"This the city cannot do," he declared, noting that a contested case hearing before a quasi-judicial body was an improper venue for public policy discussions or decisions.

Ultimately, the matter boiled down to potential glare from the illuminated sign, and the effect it might have on a nearby apartment complex. After a lengthy explanation about their standing in the matter from City Attorney Joan Kelsey, the commissioners first debated whether or not they had jurisdiction.

By a 5-1 vote - with Randy Butts opposed - they decided they did.

The more complicated matter of whether or not to deny the appeal pulled them in both directions. Tim Crenshaw's motion to uphold the appeal and deny the sign permit failed for lack of a second. Prompted by Townsend and Kelsey, Crenshaw made several attempts to nail down concrete reasons for overturning the planning department's decision to grant the sign permit.

Butts then made a motion to deny the appeal and grant the permit - with additional stipulations about glare reduction, size, and height - which passed unanimously.


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