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Fargo voters to decide sign limits

Three years after the debate began, Fargo voters will decide June 13 if the city should tighten its rules on portable signs and outdoor advertising. The 90-word, two-sentence referendum asks voters if the ordinance relating to outdoor advertising...

Three years after the debate began, Fargo voters will decide June 13 if the city should tighten its rules on portable signs and outdoor advertising.

The 90-word, two-sentence referendum asks voters if the ordinance relating to outdoor advertising and the Fargo Sign Code should be approved.

But city officials worry residents will find themselves staring blankly at their ballots, unaware of what it means to check "yes" or "no."

"Right after the publicity, people would have known what we were talking about," said Mark Williams, a Fargo planner. "After the fact, it's probably a little difficult."

For those who have no idea which box to check, or who thought this matter was resolved long ago, here's a rundown of the issue:


In July 2003, the city began discussing possible changes to its sign code, including regulations for portable signs. The outdoor signs - commonly black with neon lettering - are used by businesses for advertising.

The decision to change the city sign code stemmed from resident complaints about the number of signs across town, said Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness.

Another concern was that signs were being used as permanent fixtures, instead of temporarily as intended, Williams said. Some of the existing code is also vague and difficult to interpret, he added.

City leaders from the metro area met to create consistent plans. Fargo city commissioners voted 4-1 in March 2004 for a new, stricter sign ordinance similar to what is used in West Fargo and Moorhead.

The decision would have become law on Jan. 1, 2005, but a group opposing the changes collected enough signatures to refer the ordinance to the next regularly scheduled election, City Auditor Steve Sprague said.

In the meantime, the city has operated under its old rules.

Voters who check "yes" on the June ballot signify they agree with the City Commission's 2004 decision to implement stricter rules for the city's ordinance and sign code.

The number of days a business could display a portable sign per year in a single location would be cut from 120 to 56.


Portable signs would be limited in residential areas to three days per year. Churches in residential areas would be allowed to use the signs 12 days per year, but not more than four days at a time.

Political signs would be permitted 60 days before an election. Current code does not set a time limit, Williams said.

A Forum/WDAY-TV poll on the upcoming election found 48.7 percent of 646 likely voters supported limits on portable signs.

About 33 percent opposed limits, and 18 percent were undecided.

Small businesses and churches would be affected the most by the stricter regulations, said Sarah Bolton, co-owner of Bolton's Mobile Advertising in Horace, N.D. Both can now display portable signs for 120 days.

Bolton was one of the petition organizers who collected 2,389 signatures to place the portable sign issue on the election ballot.

Her company has 73 signs and does 90 percent of its business in Fargo, she said.

"We want people to vote 'no,' " Bolton said, adding she doesn't think people understand the impact of the new regulations.


"The small businesses cannot afford some of the other advertising that's out there. Their budgets are so limited."

Under current rules, the city has to be notified of the location and duration of all portable signs before they are displayed, according to the Inspections Department.

Companies placing portable signs must pay an annual $50 license fee. There is a $10 registration fee for each placement.

These rules would also apply under the proposed ordinance.

Policing portable signs and other signs under the city code is difficult, said Melissa Bjerken, an office associate with the Fargo Inspections Department.

"What ends up happening is that we don't have enough staff to devote a whole lot of time to running around and looking at signs."

The department assigns its intern to check on signs during the summer months, Bjerken said.

During the rest of the year, inspectors keep an eye out the best they can to see if they notice signs continually up, she said.


Williams thinks the stricter penalties for sign violations in the proposed ordinance will be "a better mechanism" to make sure businesses are following the rules.

Currently, businesses are given a warning for a first violation, Bjerken said. A second violation is a $60 fee. If the business still does not comply with the rules, the fee becomes $60 per day until the business is compliant.

Under the proposed ordinance, the first violation would bring a warning, then a $200 fine.

A third violation within a year would result in a 60-day license suspension, while a fourth offense would have the license suspended for a year.

If the proposed ordinance is approved, Bjerken said there will still be staffing issues as far as regulating sign compliance.

However, she also thinks the current sign code is vague and needs more specifics to make it easier to determine when rules are broken.

"So we can say, 'You know this is a rule and you did it anyway,' which is a little easier than saying, 'I think you made an error when you did this,' " Bjerken said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Teri Finneman at (701) 241-5560

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