City Manager sheds light on issues regarding Decorah’s digital and electronic signs ordinance

By Denise Lana,

Travis Goedken, Decorah City Manager

For the Record is part of a series of informational articles aimed at helping clarify some of the hot-topic issues currently facing the area.  

(Originally published in the February 15 Public Opinion, available in print and online. Certain content is presented first to subscribers (print and digital), then released for consumption later)

Decorah City Council has set the first reading and a public hearing for Monday, Feb. 19, at 5:45 p.m., regarding proposed changes to Decorah Municipal Code, Title 17, Chapter 17.16, the city’s ordinance regarding digital and electronic signs. 

The Public Opinion’s Denise Lana discusses these proposed changes with Decorah City Manager Travis Goedken. This ordinance is the latest in a long list of city codes that Goedken has devoted months of diligent work to update as many of the city’s codes have not been reviewed since the early 1990s. 

In a nutshell, what is the main premise of the changes proposed?

TG: Currently, according to the digital and electronic sign code, no digital or electronic signs should be permitted in Decorah. However, there are numerous signs in town —like Culver’s and McDonalds — that have been allowed by variances from the city’s Board of Adjustment of Zoning, or the sign could have potentially been part of the site plan when the business was being constructed.

Board of Adjustment of Zoning?

TG: We have five members appointed to the city’s BOA by the Mayor. Their job is to review zoning ordinances that might be unclear or causing confusion or questions. They can also approve building permits that might vary from the city’s set zoning regulations. There is no special background or education requirements for members of our BOA.

But there are numerous electronic and digital signs throughout town. Did every one of those businesses receive a BOA variance or have site plan approval?

TG: Those businesses should have gone through the same variance process and received BOA approval. But more than likely it was the old adage of, “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission,” and that’s what they did! 

Specifically, what will the changes to the ordinance mean for businesses currently with signs?

TG: This would allow those signs to be placed, like Culvers or McDonalds, that flash the specials or the flavor of the week. The signs that were previously allowed via site plan would now be considered a conforming use and permissible within the city limits of Decorah. 

Are there any signs that might be excluded under the proposed changes? 

TG: There may be a couple of signs in town that could be determined to be in violation, resulting in that business either changing how it uses the sign or the business terminating use of the sign altogether. According to one of the proposed changes, digital signs with more than one message has to have each message remain illuminated for eight seconds before transitioning to the next message. There may be some business signs that will have to be adjusted to conform to the new guidelines, if passed and adopted.

What about digital billboards? 

TG: All billboards, digital and static, are approved only through the issue of a special exception permit by our BOA. This ordinance doesn’t affect billboards at all. 

What if a business has any issue with a BOA decision regarding a sign? 

TG: If a business applies for any variance, and it is denied by the BOA, the only recourse left is to appeal the BOA’s decision with the district court.

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