EDITORIAL: High anxiety over high-tech signs

The sign nazi rides again!
    No, that’s not true. But Port Washington business operators of a certain age may have dreamed it after learning about a proposed ordinance to ban LED electronic changeable letter signs in the city.
    A former city official earned the sign-nazi sobriquet, spoken more or less in jest by merchants and others who had interacted with him, with his hard-nosed enforcement of sign restrictions, particularly his crusade against sandwich-board signs on downtown sidewalks, which included confiscation of offending signs.
    During his reign, getting a permit for any kind of sign was often an enervating exercise in hoop jumping. Even the Port Washington Historical Society was required to make a series of trivial changes on a tasteful sign no bigger than an old-time lawyer’s shingle that was to hang on a historic downtown building.
    Sign regulation in that era may have had its draconian aspects, but at least it can be said that its goal was wholesome—to protect the city’s character and image as a one-time fishing village with a historic downtown from commercial signs that offended aesthetics by being outsized, gauche or incongruous.
    Good intentions also motivated today’s Port Washington Plan Commission to propose sign regulations that would forbid LED signs. You can guess where the commission is coming from—probably Grand Avenue, where fraternal and religious organizations, of all unlikely suspects, have installed dueling LED signs and a small take-out restaurant is fronted by an LED extravaganza that takes the prize for garish display and dominating size, especially when measured by the ratio of sign size to business establishment size. Many more of these electronic marvels and the avenue might inspire comparisons to the Las Vegas Strip.
    Regulation of LED signs is clearly needed. Nevertheless, the Common Council at its meeting last week was wise to put the brakes on the ban, leaving the door open to less stringent restrictions. This made sense because LED signs are not created equal; some are inoffensive and appropriate to their surroundings.
    Council members were no doubt influenced by a persuasive presentation by Paul Drews, owner of Drews True Value. The business, located at the city’s north outskirts, recently installed an LED sign that is handsomely designed, restrained in its graphics and in scale with the sprawling hardware store it advertises. Drews made the point that his store depends on the sign for customer traffic.
    It will be challenging for city officials to craft regulations that allow LED signs but limit features perceived as inappropriate for the signs’ locations. Whatever form the regulations take, the downtown—the Port Washington historic district—should be declared an LED-free zone, with the exception of the electronic sign that been mounted for years on the facade of Port Washington State Bank, which is unobtrusive, displays community service messages, and should be grandfathered.
    The advantage of allowing some flexibility in sign regulations is demonstrated by two non-conforming signs that add interest and appeal to the downtown. One is the big retro-design  “Bernie’s Fine Meats” sign that is a classic element of business district history dating to the 1950s.
    The other is the largest sign in the city (not counting the billboards that unfortunately survive at the city’s south entrance on Spring Street), an example of commercial art executed in neon that is not just allowed to exist, but is required to remain on its lofty perch overlooking the downtown by city fiat.
    When the Smith Bros. restaurant building was sold and repurposed, the Plan Commission made it a condition of its approval that the rooftop sign featuring a sailing ship mast and sail and the marvelous Smith Bros. logo character, a fisherman wearing a sou’wester and carrying a huge sturgeon over his shoulder, be maintained in perpetuity. It lives on atop what is now the Duluth Trading Co. building as a heroic symbol of the city’s seafaring history.
    Even the sign nazi would approve.   

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