December 17, 2014
Planning Commission Halts Summit Sierra Digital Sign
Scenic advocates came out ahead last week, when the big, bright digital sign proposed by Summit Sierra for the shopping center in scenic south Reno was not approved by the Planning Commission.
In a “technical denial” the proposal was shot down with three votes in favor and two votes against the sign. Summit needed four votes to win approval. The planning commission’s decision is final unless appealed by December 22 to the Reno City Council.
More than 80 people emailed the commission opposing the sign. In a hearing that lasted about 90 minutes, commissioners heard a presentation from mall representatives, questioned staff and took comments from one south Reno resident and three members of Scenic Nevada. No one, other than the mall representatives and their attorney, spoke in favor.
Scenic Nevada maintains the mall sign is incompatible with the scenic character of the area surrounding South Virginia Street and the Mt. Rose highway in south Reno. The views include scenic mountain vistas to the west and the natural opens spaces of sage with the Virginia Foothills in the distance.
If approved, the digital sign would have flashed changing advertising specials for various tenants in the mall towards drivers traveling either direction on Interstate 580. The ads would flip every 10 seconds until 11 p.m. and every 30 minutes from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The sign would function and be regulated as a digital billboard, but both city staff and Summit insisted it wasn’t a digital billboard because it would advertise mall tenants only. A billboard advertises goods or services not sold on the premises.
Summit’s New Argument
This was the second public hearing this month on the sign, and each time either the city staff or Summit’s arguments changed somewhat.
Originally, city staff opposed the sign saying it didn’t meet five of eight criteria, called findings. Then staff reversed its original recommendation, even though the digital sign had not changed. Staff said they could make the findings, if the mall agreed to prohibit any new billboards at the shopping center.
That argument backfired when it was perceived as a threat to accept one obnoxious digital sign or risk having more digital billboards erected at the mall. Scenic Nevada led an email campaign to oppose the deal and within a few days more than 80 letters were sent to the planning commission.
In response, the attorney for Summit dismissed community opposition as “serial” letters easily communicated in a digital age. But, he also admitted at the public hearing that Summit was not proposing to build four or five new billboards at the mall. He said the point was that if digital billboards are allowed on the site, the digital sign for the mall should also be allowed.
Two commissioners disagreed and said they couldn’t approve the sign primarily because they considered it incompatible with the surrounding area. Commissioner Chuck Reno said that a non-digital sign blends, while a sign with electronically changeable ads is more noticeable and changes the scenery. Commissioner Paul Olivas added that digital signs can be viewed from several miles away and the sign request had inconsistencies and was not compelling enough.
The remaining three commissioners said the sign does meet the criteria to approve the sign. Although Commissioner Peter Gower wanted to add a condition that if the city approves stronger digital sign controls in the future, the mall sign would have to comply.
Nevertheless, state public meeting statutes requires four votes for passage. Even though only five of the seven members were available for the vote last week, four yes votes were still needed for approval. And Summit Sierra came up short.
Scenic Nevada’s Objections
Scenic Nevada consistently objected to the tortured logic used by the city staff and Summit to justify allowing the digital sign. New billboard construction was prohibited by the voters in 2000, but the city has not enforced the ban. If it had, the community would not be in the position of having to accept some blight to prevent the threat of even more blight.
Also, there is a moratorium on accepting digital billboard applications until our lawsuit against the city is resolved. Scenic Nevada sued when the city enacted a new ordinance, in violation of the people’s vote, to allow digital billboards.
And now, according to Summit’s attorney, it seems the mall never intended to erect any new billboards at all.
Weak Digital Sign Rules
Staff and Summit said that because Reno has very few rules in place for digital signs, the digital billboard regulations should apply.
Scenic Nevada said these rules are untried, possibly unworkable and too liberal. The digital billboard regulations were approved two years ago and include regulations pushed by the billboard and sign industry and adopted by the last city council. Because of the digital billboard moratorium, experience using the new regulations is lacking.
Also, Scenic Nevada submitted a report to the planning commission which shows the digital billboard regulation on limiting sign brightness is not adequate to protect drivers from glare. Glare from the sign can interfere with a driver’s reaction time to brake lights or other obstacles present on the roadway.
The report, commissioned by Scenic Nevada, was prepared by the Veridian Group and compares the brightness levels of signs in the Truckee Meadows; both digital and non-digital. It also recommends different brightness rules to protect drivers from the glare of overly bright digital signs and billboards.
Meanwhile, the city council last week unanimously approved a request to initiate a second sign moratorium – this one for six months for digitals like the Wild Orchid strip club sign on South Virginia. Big retail, like Summit, and casino signs were exempt. The new city council’s intent is to develop better digital sign regulations while the moratorium is in place.