City’s downtown signage process reviewed

The process of how downtown signage is approved was reviewed and discussed at the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting Thursday night.

Last fall, dozens of downtown business owners filled the council chambers to discuss the good and bad of the process of how the signage downtown is approved. No decision was made at that gathering, but one thing everyone agreed on was the current process had to change.

Currently, before a business in the historic downtown district hangs a sign, it needs to be approved by the volunteer-run Site Planning Review Board.

Every sign is then approved or denied on a case by case basis. The type of signs varies by the building it would go on. According to the guidelines for signs and awnings, each sign must be well-designed and reflect Marshalltown’s historic character.

“We’ve been going through some stressful times with the downtown sign regulations to say the least,” said Stephen Troskey, city planner. “We’ve tried a number of ways to remedy that and it keeps coming back to people complaining about how the Site Planning and Review Board is too lenient or way too strict.”

Based on the meeting last fall, Troskey made a proposal. Instead of having a Site Planning and Review Board approve the sign, he suggested the city staff would approve the sign, the same way any other sign in Marshalltown is approved.

“Because there is no board, we need to set up guidelines to what specifically is and is not allowed,” Troskey said. “That is one of the main complaints. It’s so subjective, applicants don’t know what to expect.”

Sharon Greer, Planning & Zoning commission member, asked how other communities choose their signage downtown.

“You have other communities that have design standards that are strict,” Greer said.

Greer said downtown is identified as one of the key spots of the city, she said protecting the architecture and feel of the historic community is key.

“I’m not willing to give up those standards,” Greer said.

Jenny Etter, MCBD director, said the MCBD is for more regulations on signage.

“This community worked very hard to have this become a historic district,” Etter said. “I think with that comes some responsibility. If you own a building and have a shop in the historic district, there should be criteria that differs from the rest of the community, because it is a historic district.”

Etter said the businesses in communities like West Des Moines that have stringent signage codes love it because they have a business that is next door that is held to the same requirements.

“Yes you’re going to have people that don’t like it, but there will be more people that appreciate the fact that it looks really nice,” Etter said.

This year, Etter said she wants to have a lot of the MCBD focus be on education and window displays of the shops downtown.

“There are all sorts of workshops and resources we can provide to educate on how you market to the general population,” Etter said. “I think we can look at other communities with historic districts and see what kind of palettes they have.”

Jon Boston suggested that Etter should share information from the Main Street historic guide with the Planning & Zoning Commission.

“That’s what I was after,” said Fauna Nord, Planning & Zoning Commission member. “Guidelines on historic preservation.”

After having clear, cut and specific guidelines that are fair and consistent, Etter said, overtime, there will be a clear expectation.

“If you say to them, ‘we have adopted this historic criteria,’ done, end of story,” Etter said. “There’s no subjectivity, it’s either you have this criteria or you don’t. It almost has to be that black and white on a lot of things.”

No decision was made at this meeting. The commission and Etter will look into different options on deciding downtown signage regulations.

There will not be a public hearing at the next Planning & Zoning commission meeting.