When the lights (don't) go down in the city
Randy Metcalf/The Explorer, Business leaders want the town to extend the hours they can keep signs illuminated, while some residents asked to have a lights-out at 10 p.m. policy upheld. Many pointed to the Oro Valley Marketplace as the impetus for the discussion. Last Wednesday, the Oro Valley Town Council decided to undertake a comprehensive review of the town's sign policy, an issue that has been discussed at recent meetings.

The contentious debate about business signs in Oro Valley carries forward to another day.

At its Aug. 19 meeting, the Oro Valley Town Council did not resolve the issue, splitting 3-3 on an ordinance that would have amended town code to allow local businesses to keep wall signs illuminated until 10 p.m. or the time of closing.

The code currently says businesses have to turn their signs off one hour after they close.

Council members K.C. Carter, Al Kunisch and Mayor Paul Loomis voted in favor of the change, and members Bill Garner, Barry Gillaspie and Salette Latas opposed. Councilwoman Paula Abbott was absent.

"I know that there were some pretty harsh comments about Oro Valley in the press and other places, but I think that was really an insult to the people of Oro Valley, and that's unfortunate because those are your customers," Gillaspie told an assemblage of business owners, chamber of commerce representatives and townspeople at last Wednesday's meeting.

Gillaspie's comments came after nearly two dozen people spoke out about the proposed change to the sign code, many of whom had urged the town not to impose any limits on the hours of sign illumination.

"We would like to have businesses determine on their own when to turn their signs off," said Paul Parisi, an Oro Valley resident and Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce spokesman.

Parisi also noted a common complaint about signs that comes from the business community — the claim that the code hinders business in the town.

Many in the local business community, and both the Tucson and Northern Pima County chambers of commerce, have argued that signs serve not only as destination markers but as advertising tools.

Parisi said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce attributes as much as 50 percent of new customers to signage.

Concerns from the business community weren't the only ones the council had to contend with. Many residents also were vocal in their opposition to extending the lighting hours of signs.

"Lighting should be a good neighbor," Oro Valley resident Doug McKee said.

McKee also called into question assertions that signs provide a demonstrable advertising benefit, saying he was unable to find any documentation to support the claim.

Another resident suggested that town officials hadn't followed the necessary process to initiate a change in the code.

"I can't imagine why you would let the planning and zoning staff do something without authorization," Bill Adler said.

Adler said changes such as those proposed for the sign code would have to be placed on the department's work plan. Further, Adler said, the process has to involve updating policies in the town's general plan.

Town Manager David Andrews told The Explorer that he recognized the process might not have proceeded as it should have.

"It is atypical that town staff would initiate something like that," Andrews said.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to come from the discussion about lit signs was the revelation from planning staffer Dee Widero that few businesses comply with the code as written.

Earlier this year, the planning department conducted a survey of local businesses to see how many were turning off their lights at the proscribed time. The department found as few as 20 percent of businesses complied with the code.

"The illumination issue does not contribute to economic problems of businesses, because they're not complying with it anyway," Adler said.

Councilman Garner noted the compliance disparity in his comments on the issue.

"Eighty percent non-compliance with our businesses and now they want us to go to dusk-till-dawn," Garner said, referencing the bright green stickers members of the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce had handed out to supporters.

At least one business owner took offense at Garner's statement. Mike Quinn, owner of 911 Collision Center, approached the podium attempting to talk on the issue even though the public comment portion of the item had concluded.

"I'm insulted by this," Quinn proclaimed.

Mayor Loomis was clearly displeased with the interruption.

"Sit down!" Loomis shouted, telling Quinn he would be removed from the meeting if he attempted to disrupt the proceedings again.

In lieu of not reaching a resolution on the issue, Gillaspie moved that the town take a larger view of the entire sign code and come up with some recommendations for reform.

The sign code spans more than 30 pages.

"We've got work to do," Gillaspie said.

Councilman Kunisch asked to have extended lighting hours included on the new motion, essentially a request to add provisions of the failed reform on a temporary basis.

"Right now the businesses are asking for a little relief, and this isn't giving any," Kunisch said.

Gillaspie would not accept the change.

The proposal to study the sign code passed, with Kunisch and Carter opposed.

In the meantime, Andrews said the town would begin efforts to enforce the sign code.

"We'll start doing more evening work, I can say that," Andrews told The Explorer.

In addition, Andrews said he wants the code rewrite to benefit both business and residents.

The planning and zoning department was directed to have a proposal for the council by November.

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