Business

Owners say portable sign ban in Citrus Heights hurts small businesses

Java Cherry, portable signs
Portable signs and flag outside Java Cherry coffee shop on Van Maren Lane advertise to passing motorists. // CH Sentinel

Sentinel staff report–
Code enforcement officers have been making the rounds to dozens of Citrus Heights businesses in recent months in an effort to clean up portable commercial signs around the city, but some business owners aren’t happy about it.

While cities like Roseville and Sacramento have made changes in recent years to allow the use of A-frames and other portable signs as a way for businesses to inexpensively boost their visibility, Citrus Heights has expressly prohibited such signs since the city’s inception — although code enforcement has only recently been targeting violations.

City officials say the signs can create blight and be a safety hazard, but some business owners say the signs drive a significant portion of their sales — especially when their storefront is back-set from a busy street.

“At the end of the day, the sign policy just hurts the small guy,” said Louise Hansen-Cordray, who owns the Java Cherry coffee shop near the corner of Van Maren Lane and Auburn Boulevard. She said code enforcement notified her last month that she needed to take down several portable “feather flags” and an A-frame advertising her coffee shop on Van Maren Lane, but she hasn’t complied and plans to take the issue to city hall, if needed, to work towards “an exception” or change in the current city sign ordinance.

“I can honestly say about 25 percent of my business comes from signage,” she told The Sentinel, referring to the pair of tall waving flags she sets out each morning near the sidewalk along Van Maren Lane that read “Espresso” and “Smoothies.”

Related: Java Cherry: neighborhood coffee house offers unique appeal in Citrus Heights

Hansen-Cordray isn’t the only one to complain about the city’s ban on portable signs. Other business owners The Sentinel spoke with question the ban as well — and some continue to knowingly violate the ordinance.

Tiffany Martinez, who opened a snack shop called Antojitos Locos at the corner of Antelope Road and Sunrise Boulevard last year, said the city’s prohibition on portable signs has hindered her ability to let customers know her shop is open.

Despite being located on a high-traffic intersection, because she is back-set from the street in a shopping center, Martinez says she often hears customers tell her, “If you would have had a sign out here, I would have known about it sooner.”

City staff say questions about the sign ordinance are commonly asked by business owners. The topic also came up during a recent business walk, prompting the city to respond with a letter about the sign ordinance and several other common issues brought up by business owners.

Asked about the reason for prohibiting portable signs, Citrus Heights Police Lt. Dave Gutierrez said the ban on portable signs is about safety and keeping the city streets beautiful. Although the city didn’t enforce its sign ordinance for many years, Gutierrez said code enforcement began an “education” effort last August and have since contacted over 120 businesses to inform them about the sign ordinance and try to gain voluntary compliance.

“It’s a safety thing and an aesthetic thing — we want the city to look beautiful,” said Gutierrez, who oversees the city’s code enforcement division. “Because [the sign ordinance] hadn’t been enforced, more and more signs began to accumulate and it just looked very, very bad.”

Gutierrez also noted that part of code enforcement’s effort has been to educate business owners about a grant opportunity the city offers with a one-to-one matching grant of up to $5,000 for monument signage, using public funds designated for the city’s economic development fund.

“You can get a pretty nice sign for ten grand,” said the lieutenant.

He also noted the city’s code allows for a sole exception to the prohibition on A-frame signs. The ordinance allows for a business with “seriously impaired” visibility to have a maximum of one “A-board” sign per parcel, but only if the business is set back at least 150 feet from the street and the site has already been developed with all other permanent signs allowed.

See Citrus Heights’ sign policy: click here

He said a business like Charlie’s Cafe in the Grand Oaks Plaza on Auburn Boulevard would qualify for the exception, but added that because only one sign is allowed per parcel — other businesses in the shopping center would have to rotate their use of an A-frame and would not all be allowed to use a sign on the same day.

According to the city code, businesses meeting the criteria for the limited exception are also required to remove the sign daily at the close of business, keep the sign in good condition, and provide stabilization to withstand wind gusts. Additionally, the sign must be professionally designed and not obstruct a sidewalk or impede the line-of-sight for street traffic.

What about other cities?
Roseville has similar safety and aesthetic guidelines for A-frame signs, but since 2010 the city has allowed all businesses to have one A-frame sign each, regardless of how far back-set the business is from a street. They do not allow feather flags.

Rancho Cordova allows for temporary placement of A-frames and feather flags, for up to 60 days per year, but requires a $60 temporary use permit to be acquired. The city, like Roseville, also requires signs to be kept out of the public right-of-way.

The City of Sacramento appears to have the most lenient policy for both signs and flags after dropping its ban on A-frame signs in 2013, following a lawsuit challenging the ordinance. The lawsuit claimed the sign ban violated business owner’s free speech rights and also claimed the ordinance was unduly restrictive and singled out business advertising while allowing for temporary real estate and political signs.

Asked how Roseville’s sign policy has worked out, Roseville City Councilman Scott Alvord, who is also a business owner, told The Sentinel on Wednesday that he’s personally seen the benefit that portable signs like A-frames bring to small businesses.

“A-frame signs make a significant difference for businesses that need to draw in customers who are passing by on foot or vehicle,” Alvord said. “Restaurants notice a significant effect, as do businesses that are set back and can’t be easily seen.”

On the flip-side, he said the signs “can be an eyesore when irresponsible businesses don’t take care of them, leave them out overnight, place them on uneven surfaces, or overcrowd an area.”

Alvord, who previously served as president of Downtown Roseville Merchants before being electing to the city council, said policies can be put in place to improve the visual appearance of portable signs, like requiring signs to be placed on a flat surface, since they can appear tacky when off-balance. Roseville also requires all signs to be taken in at night.

See Roseville’s sign policy: click here

Prior to the city amending its sign ordinance to allow A-frame signs, Alvord said he knew of a business owner who would regularly pay fines for having their signs out, “because they lost money without the sign and it was worth the payment to bring in the customers.”

Asked whether the pros of allowing the signs outweigh any cons, Alvord said “Yes. Any community that values the success of its small businesses needs to listen to their needs.”

What happens next?
Hansen-Cordray says she doesn’t have an extra $1,000 or $5,000 to put up for the city’s matching grant and said she plans to keep her signs out and work towards an exception. She called her waving flag signs “beautiful” and said enforcement effort should be put on businesses who don’t maintain their signs or are irresponsible with their placement.

“Nobody wants to come into a parking lot where signs are dirty, messy, and the parking lots are a mess,” she said. “So as long as we take care of them, I’m not really sure what the real issue is.”

Alison Bermudez, an associate planner with the City of Citrus Heights, said on Thursday that no changes to the sign ordinance are currently being considered, but she said the possibility of future changes would be driven by “feedback from the community.”

Want to share your thoughts on the Citrus Heights sign ordinance? Click here to submit a letter to the editor for publication.