Signs in the right of way: Elk River will enforce, but educate too

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Despite some public backlash, the Elk River City Council has agreed to continue enforcing an ordinance that prohibits signs in the right of way.

Signs are prohibited in the public right of way in Elk River. In most cases, that means placing a sign next to the street, or within the grass strip between a street curb and sidewalk, is against city ordinance.

Signs are prohibited in the public right of way in Elk River. In most cases, that means placing a sign next to the street, or within the grass strip between a street curb and sidewalk, is against city ordinance.

The council wrestled with the matter in a work session July 15, before deciding by consensus to continue enforcing the ordinance but also begin an education campaign on the sign rules. The ordinance prohibits signs in the public right of way — including garage sale, graduation party and business signs.

The city’s regulations do not apply to county or state roads in Elk River, but both the state and county have similar prohibitions on signs in the right of way.

Other options considered by the City Council were to change the ordinance to allow signs in the right of way or to allow signs in the right of way only for a specific time frame such as noon Thursday through 6 p.m. Sunday.

But a majority of council members (Council Member Barb Burandt was absent) favored leaving the ordinance as it is.

Council Member Paul Motin said he’s not interested in changing the ordinance.

He believes the biggest issue is that the city has been somewhat lax on enforcement in the last several years due to budget cuts and other factors.

“I think it’s just a matter of education … We’re not saying you can’t put up signs. You just can’t put them in the right of way,” Motin said.

But Mayor John Dietz said he somewhat agrees with a person who wrote a letter to the Star News, saying it’s a fight the city can’t win.

“I just think we’re asking for trouble here,” Dietz said. “There’s a lot of people that this is a very hot button issue. There’s a lot of people that have garage sales in town and it’s not going to go away.”

He advocated for a compromise such as allowing signs in the right of way for part of the week.

Fire Chief John Cunningham, who oversees the city’s code enforcement under a new city organizational structure approved last year, said his goal is to enforce the city’s ordinances as they are written, “and that’s essentially what we’re doing.”

The ordinance is also consistent with the city’s goal to enhance beautification of the city, Cunningham said. One of the city’s action steps is to “actively enforce zoning and signage standards on primary corridors.”

Utilities also run in the right of way and could potentially be disrupted by stakes, although Cunningham said he isn’t aware of that having happened.

Cunningham said he personally doesn’t have an issue with signs, but he has a moral and ethical standard to enforce the ordinance fairly. He agrees they need to do a better job with education.

He said garage sales are part of the fabric of America and the city, and it’s a matter of balancing that with the city’s vision and goals of trying to maintain the aesthetics.

Council Member Stewart Wilson said he’s received a number of calls about the issue and thinks the public was caught off guard with the sudden enforcement of the ordinance. He agrees that the city has an ordinance in effect and signs in the right of way should not be permitted.

“How we wrestle this gorilla is another matter,” he said.

He agreed an education campaign is necessary. As a compromise, Wilson said the city could take a hiatus on the enforcement for the rest of the year, educate the public and enforce the ordinance next year, but there was concern about how the city would then address sign complaints that come in this year.

In the end, the council agreed with a suggestion from City Administrator Cal Portner that the city continue to enforce the ordinance but develop some educational materials and a strategy to educate people about the prohibition on signs in the right of way.

“Let’s give the education piece a chance … and see if we can make some inroads,” Portner said.

A survey the city did of area cities shows most also prohibit signs in the right of way.

Where to place signs

The public right of way can vary depending on the street and even individual properties, according to Cunningham.

“Generally speaking, the best option is to place signs, such as those advertising garage sales, closer to a house than the street,” he said. “Most times, placing a sign immediately adjacent to the street, or within the grass strip between a street curb and sidewalk, is against city ordinance. Public rights of way can be anywhere from a few feet to 10-15 feet from the street curb depending on the specific street or property. “

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