One of the most complex and lengthy ordinances in all of Clayton government is the one dealing with signs, their color, size and shape.
A sign is a first impression, a trademark, the most basic advertisement, but for many Clayton businesses, the town’s sign ordinance has been anything but helpful. Beginning with last month’s planning board meeting, the town is looking to relax some sign restrictions and clean up the dos and don’ts of the ordinance.
The proposed changes mostly concern Clayton’s many strip malls and multi-tenant commercial buildings, where the town’s sign rules have proven to be a murky swamp of regulatory confusion.
Clayton’s master sign plan allows just one color plus any registered trademark features for each tenant in a shopping center. That mean the business names for a half-dozen tenants in a strip mall would all be the same color.
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The master sign plan replaced the common sign plan, which allowed four colors. Through the plan, the town tried to create cohesion among tenants in the same development, but in reality, the ordinance has proven nearly unworkable.
“It’s been a bumpy road, master sign plans,” said Clayton planning director Jay McLeod. “It also relies on people who aren’t professional sign-plan makers to create a professional document that has implications beyond the present day. It may restrict future tenant signage options. It’s a very technical document, maybe not well suited in terms of getting businesses what they want, which is to be able to just do business in Clayton.”
The struggle is real for some Clayton landlords. Abdul Kamalpasha owns a four-tenant commercial building next to Lone Star Steakhouse in the Walmart shopping center. He said the sign ordinance has some tenants going back to the drawing board multiple times.
“They spend a lot of money designing something and having to redo it twice,” Kamalpasha said. “It’s a cumbersome process that is not friendly to business. The process, to say the least, is a long process. I’m not sure why it’s so hard.”
It can get even more complicated when storefronts in the same strip mall have different owners. In those cases, the master sign plan requires coordination between the different businesses on what one another’s signs look like.
“It seemed problematic that the approval of someone’s sign permit on their own property was contingent on the approval of their neighbor on a separate property,” McLeod said. “That’s like asking your neighbor to give you a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down if you want to hang out your ‘Merry Christmas’ sign on your front door.”
The proposed changes are more of an overhaul than a total scrapping, but they do represent a philosophical shift in how the town regulates how businesses express themselves. If approved by the town council, the sign ordinance would continue to restrict signs to 25 percent of a wall surface but would allow multiple colors.
“Whether or not the heartache and suffering of people going through this process is justified in maintaining that unified look ... or not, it’s more appropriate to let the market drive, let the landlord and tenant drive the color of each signage on each site,” McLeod said.
Along with allowing multiple colors, the town is also considering expanded definitions, restrictions and exemptions in the world of signage. Painting a logo or name on an exterior wall continues to be the main hard and fast prohibition for signs in Clayton. The rope LED lights that line some downtown businesses are also prohibited and deemed undesirable, but flags and flagpoles, such as the ones at Novo Nordisk, are allowed and deemed desirable. Back-lit awnings and signs placed in windows are also taboo.
The planning board tabled any action on the proposed changes but seemed amenable and appreciative of the perceived clarity.
“If there’s any one thing I’ve been questioned on, it’s signs,” said chairman Frank Price. “Maybe this will help clear that up.”