Panel backs billboard freeze in Cedar Rapids

Current ordinance allows billboards in industrial and commercial zones without a special permit

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The City Planning Commission wants the City Council to impose a moratorium on permits for new billboards until the city finalizes new rules now under consideration for the large, off-premise signs, including new-era digital billboards.

Commission member Allan Thoms on Thursday came up with idea of the moratorium on new requests, arguing at the commission’s monthly meeting that local companies will start to rush to make billboard requests knowing that the city is working on new sign rules. It would be no different, he said, than the current run of people buying up guns with the expectation of coming new federal regulations.

Vern Zakostelecky, a planner in the city’s Community Development Department, said that billboard companies already are hustling to submit applications for new billboard permits with the thought that new rules are coming.

The commission on Thursday had been asked to support a new proposal from the City Council’s Development Committee, which called on the city to require special conditional-use permits for every new billboard. The current city ordinance permits billboards in industrial zones and in the busiest of commercial zoning districts without a special conditional-use permit.

However, commission members thought the temporary moratorium made better sense than to turn every billboard request into a conditional use to be reviewed by the city’s Board of Adjustment, which Thoms said would add more subjectivity and perhaps less fairness to the process.

“Let’s look at a moratorium until we get new rules,” Thoms said.

The commission also recommended that the City Council look to the concept of overlay districts in the city that may be historic, scenic or otherwise noteworthy where special sign regulations should be put in place.

Commission member Mike Tertinger, though, expressed concern about how such special districts might be identified and what such districts said about other parts of the city.

“Does that mean every other place is ugly enough to put up a sign,” Tertinger said.

Thoms, though, said it’s probably clear that no one wants to see billboards in the arts, cultural and entertainment district on Third Street SE, but new signs in industrial areas might make sense. .

Mark Wold, general manager at Lamar Advertising in Cedar Rapids, said Thursday that his firm, which owns the majority of billboards in the city, is waiting to see what changes to the city’s billboard ordinance eventually emerge.

“I’m not making any judgment until we see what we’re looking at,” Wold said.

The city also is looking at new rules for digital billboards, which would require that digital messages on the billboards not change more often than every eight seconds. The city of Marion has a 10-second standard.

The city also is looking to make the digital signs dim at night and not face nearby residential areas, schools, churches, parks and historic buildings and districts.

Seth Gunnerson, a planner in the city’s Community Development Department, said some cities use a cap-and-trade system, which requires that an existing billboard be removed if a new one goes up elsewhere in the city. The result likely would reduce the density of existing signs when new ones are added as the city’s area grows larger. At the same time, it would make it difficult for a new sign company to enter the market because they wouldn’t have existing signs to trade for new ones

The city has estimated that it has about 80 “off-premise” billboards, which are different from on-premise signs that promote the business located on the site of the sign.

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