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Sending a message: Businesses ask for sign code change

Allowing text to change would even playing field, some say

Feb. 1, 2012

Surrounded by the city of Milwaukee on three sides, Bluemound Automotive competes with national franchises that attract customers with inflatable mascots and flashy signage.

Jim Dietrich, president of the business at 60th Street and Bluemound Road, would like to step up his promotions by changing the message on his electronic sign more frequently than once per day.

"I'd like to be on a level playing field with the competition," he said.

Dietrich got support from Alderman Dennis McBride, who on Tuesday asked the Community Development Committee to consider allowing businesses with electronic signs to change them as frequently as every hour for a trial period of 90 days.

"If we're going to allow electronic signs, we ought to allow them to be useful," McBride said.

The city needs to consider aesthetics and traffic safety, specifically whether the messages would distract drivers, he said. McBride doesn't want to see scrolling words, or messages changing as frequently as every three to five seconds as West Allis and Greenfield allow.

The owners of Tower Optical, 2130 N. Mayfair Road, said they, too, are frustrated. The business has invested in an expensive sign as a way to draw attention to itself. However, they've received complaints that it's too bright and wild.

Alderwoman Jill Organ, committee chairwoman, views the issue in a much larger scope.

"What we're looking at here is, what would we like our city to look like?" she said. "Once we go down this road you're going to get a lot more people wanting to put up these signs."

She suggested granting waivers for businesses on the city's borders.

Alderwoman Linda Nikcevich agreed that the committee should look at potential impacts before trying changes "so we're not looking like the Las Vegas strip here." She asked that the issue be brought back in two weeks and that staff provide photos of some existing signs throughout the city.

The 24-hour restriction does help limit the number of signs, Economic Development Director Paulette Enders said. Many people decide not to apply for an electronic sign after they learn they can only change the message once per day.

It's hard to know how many electronic signs there are within the city. No database exists, so staff would need to pick through the permits to compile a complete list, she said..

Enforcement already is lacking. Several aldermen pointed out Walgreens locations throughout the city frequently change their messages. One part-time property maintenance inspector handles issues on a complaint basis, Enders said.

Next step

WHAT: Community Development Committee will consider changes to ordinance regulating the use of electronic signs

WHEN: 8 p.m. Feb. 14

WHERE: City Hall, 7725 W. North Ave.

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