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Wauwatosa to crack down on non-compliant business signs

City inspectors are reviewing business signs throughout the city, focusing on gateway corridors such as Bluemound Road.

City inspectors are reviewing business signs throughout the city, focusing on gateway corridors such as Bluemound Road. Photo By Jon Olson

Feb. 12, 2014

The city for the first time has begun a survey of all business signs in the city to ensure compliance with city code.

"The initiative is something we've wanted to do for some time," property maintenance inspector Gregg Blando said.

While the survey will include all business signs, it will be aimed at clearing a decade's worth of complaints, he said. About 200 letters announcing the survey have been sent to business addresses.

The letters list common violations, including poor sign maintenance, signs erected without proper permits and adherence to the 30-day time limit for banners, and describes prohibited signs, including animated or otherwise distracting signs, signs in the city right of way, signs exceeding size limits for a given property and other problems.

The overall goal, Blando said, is the eradication of "sign blight."

Targeting gateways

"What I'm proposing is we concentrate our priorities on the gateways to the city, the corridors, which are the North Avenue corridor, the Mayfair corridor, and (the) Vliet Street and Milwaukee (Avenue) corridor, the Bluemound corridor. Briefly, those are the areas where I've received the majority of complaints over the past 10 years," he said.

Blando, who is retiring at the end of the month after 11 years with Wauwatosa, will work with his replacement, newly hired code enforcement officer Kimberly Bretza.

Tight guidelines

Blando said Wauwatosa's sign regulations are more restrictive than those of many communities, including Milwaukee, where he worked in building inspection for 30 years.

"We have a very, I would call it, strict regulation. For example, we do not allow changeable messages to change every few seconds like they do in other jurisdictions. We only allow that message ... to change every 24 hours," Blando said. "There's been some requests to change that, but the council has not done that yet."

The city bans new billboards; animated, mechanical and audible signs deemed distracting; marquees; portable or sandwich board signs, except in the Village; off-premises signs; roof signs; window signs exceeding 20 percent of the window area; and most pennants and streamers.

Restricted sizes

In addition, the city has precise sign size limitations based on a calculation of the street-facing length of the building. So, if the length of the building facing the street is 65 feet, it can have a sign no larger than 1.5 square feet per lineal foot of the building. In this case, a 6-by-10-foot sign would probably qualify, since 6 times 10 is less than 65.

An array of other ordinances and clauses cover a broad variety of signs and uses, including real estate signs, seasonal signs, awning signs and even water tower signs.

Good and bad

"I think it's a good thing to kind of put things in check and make sure everybody's compliant," said Chris Leffler, owner of Leff's Lucky Town, 7208 W. State St.

At the same time, he said, the city's sign code "can be onerous."

He had a problem with the city when he tried to change the images on the lighted Reinke's sign at the service station he bought and expanded his bar into.

He said the city originally told him he could keep the sign, and just replace the images with his logo, but in the end he was required to reduce the size of the marker.

Changing the images alone would have cost $800, Leffler said. Reducing the size of the sign ran him $8,000.

A desire to do more

At 2130 N. Mayfair Road, Tower Optical has a brightly lighted, high-tech sign that surely could do more than frequently change images.

"Originally they kind of told us we could do whatever we wanted to do with the sign, but they set a couple guidelines as far as how often it could change" — once a day — said a Tower manager, who asked not to be named.

"I'd like to do more with it, and be able to change it, at least flip to two different things on a daily basis, but, unfortunately, they're really strict with that," he said. "In the beginning, when we thought we could do that, we tried to do it, and we got a phone call from the city within a day or two."

He said they've become compliant.

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