Santa Monica City Council Members Give Green Light To Approve Animated Signs Law

Friday, 13 Sep 2013, 9:28:00 AM

Parimal M. Rohit

Get ready to see a few more animated signs across Santa Monica, as council members logged a series of close votes Tuesday night effectively lifting the prohibition against such signs.

With the votes, an exception to City law would be created in order to allow use of animated signs for public safety purposes, schools, and traffic circulation.

It took two separate votes to approve the ordinance as originally proposed by City staff.

Council member Kevin McKeown suggested bifurcating the City staff recommendation to vote on what he viewed as two different parts of the ordinance: one part regulating animated signs for public safety and traffic control, and the other governing the use of such signs at Santa Monica’s private schools.

The first vote, a motion to allow animated signs for public safety and traffic control, passed by a 4 to 3 vote, with Mayor Pam O’Connor, Mayor Pro Tem Terry O’Day, and Council member Bob Holbrook voting against.

O’Connor and O’Day both stated they voted “no” because they did not believe the City staff recommendation should have been bifurcated.

In its final vote on the issue, the council voted 5 to 2 in favor of allowing primary and secondary schools to use animated signs “for school purposes.”

McKeown, who opposed the final motion, stated his “no” voted represented “a belief that the action taken here affords insufficient protection to residents who live near these signs.”

A substitute motion to require schools seeking signs to submit to a permitting process or some other established regulation was voted down, 4 to 3, with only McKeown and Council members Ted Winterer and Tony Vazquez in support.

There was not much discussion on the portion of ordinance addressing public safety and traffic control.

However, while council members appeared to be supportive of animated signs, a key point of discussion was whether such signs should be regulated, especially when it comes to private schools, which are located on private property.

Winterer pondered whether he and his colleagues should consider an alternative plan to allow animated sign use in the City but with set regulations or a permitting system.

“Most of our schools are in residential neighborhoods,” McKeown said, who labeled animated signs as attention-getters and “very obtrusive.”

“What I’ve noticed about the signs up on our public schools is that they flash bright red, usually, lights into the windows of homes nearby, often 24 hours a day,” McKeown continued. “I would be very cautious to allow a blanket rule that schools, private and public, could have animated signs.

McKeown added he would be open to having some sort of procedure in place to consider where animated signs would be allowed or its hours of operation.

Interestingly enough, City Attorney Marsha Jones Moutrie said allowing private schools to use animated signs potentially raises some legal risks, a point made in the City staff report.

“There is some legal risk because creating an exemption for schools communicating school-related information could be seen as regulation based on content. On the other hand, arguably all schools in the community should have similar opportunities,” City staff stated.

State law permits animated sign usage on its own property; public schools, such as Samohi, are on State-owned property.

Council member Gleam Davis and O’Connor both said they did not believe the animated signs would too much of a nuisance.

“I don’t think anyone is suggesting it’s going to be fireworks and Disneyland,” Davis said.

If the ordinance clears a second reading at the council’s next meeting, the exception would officially go in effect.

Prior to the council’s action, City Hall and some schools have already used animated signs in the past. Santa Monica’s public schools were permitted to use animated signs under State law.

City Hall had previously used animated signs “to direct traffic and minimize congestion” while some schools used them “to apprise the community about school operation and events.”

Santa Monica’s Sign Code had regulated signage within city limits “in order to promote aesthetic and environmental values and protect traffic safety, while allowing ample opportunity for communication.”

First Amendment rights would remain protected under the Sign Code, even with the new ordinance. Under First Amendment law, City Hall is allowed to regulate “the place and manner” of sign-related communication “to avoid visual blight, decrease the risk of accidents caused by distraction and confusion, and preserve the City’s desirability as a place to live, work and visit.”

According to City staff, animated signs are defined as signs with “any visible moving part, flashing or oscillating lights, visible mechanical movement of any description, or other apparent visible movement achieved by any means.”

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