Courtenay City Council appears to have opened the door for businesses to erect electronic message boards, despite unfavorable public opinion of digital signage.
At its Nov. 20 meeting, council defied its existing sign bylaw and approved a variance for an electronic message board for Prime Chophouse, a restaurant visible, but not accessible, from Ryan Road.
Chophouse owner Kory Wagstaff told council people have difficulty finding his restaurant, which is threatening the viability of his business. He said his location makes it a challenge to stay open for lunch and the business itself may not be sustainable without help from the city.
Wagstaff argued that digital signs are more representative of “the style of the Comox Valley.”
The current sign bylaw prohibits electronic message boards except for institutional uses. The Lewis Park Recreation Centre has one, as does St. George’s Church and Mark Isfeld High School.
Prior to 2013, the city disallowed all such signs. But the parents association at Isfeld High School lobbied council to amend its bylaw after they had raised the funds for an electronic sign.
A staff member told council that the city receives frequent requests from private businesses for electronic signs, but rejects them because during the 2013 public hearings for the Isfeld amendment, people were clearly opposed to them. Staff said people don’t like the esthetics and the added illumination of digital signs.
Council member David Frisch moved to reject the Chophouse application for a development variance permit, because “The city … sign bylaw was passed in 2013 to ensure that the character and visual appearance of our community would be maintained, and that traffic safety would not be compromised.”
Frisch’s motion was supported by councilors Doug Hillian and Rebecca Lennox.
But they lost the battle to Mayor Larry Jangula and councilors Erik Eriksson, Bob Wells and Mano Theos. Their support seemed to be based on the Chophouse’s support of local charities, that it’s a “great restaurant” and its location has access problems.
The most surprising support came from Councilor Eriksson, who has announced his candidacy for mayor in this fall’s elections. He had previously opposed the electronic sign at the Lewis Centre, but supported this variance application.
“I support this … it’s a great restaurant,” he said.
Eriksson later said via email that “ Lighted digital message signs are becoming more commonplace, where appropriate … I think the applicant made a good case for a variance ….”
Only Mayor Jangula addressed the key issue of whether council was opening a Pandora’s Box.
In an emailed statement to Decafnation, Jangula said, “During the meeting I commented that this was a unique problem requiring a unique solution. This is not a precedent for other electronic signs in Courtenay, and there are no plans to update the sign bylaw at this time.”
“Prime Chophouse has some unusual access problems,” Jangula said. “Council acknowledged that the lack of access off Ryan Road, which is under MoT jurisdiction, has been a challenge for this business.”
But Councilor Hillian worried about precedent.
“There’ll be no rationale for refusing any future (similar) requests,” he said.
Lennox told Decafnation, “While I have compassion for the inconvenience people have when trying to locate the entrance to The Prime Chop House, I didn’t support the resolution.
“I feel the community has been very clear about it’s hopes for modest signs without illumination and felt the applicant could have used a traditional sign to convey the same information,” she said.
Frisch, who moved the motion to reject the private business sign, said electronic message boards are allowed at schools, churches, rec centres and other public assembly locations.
“I believe this reflects the general will of our community and I support the idea that too much signage detracts from our natural surroundings, while providing limited benefits to our citizens,” Frisch said. “I am always open to revisit and discuss our bylaws and would consider variances as well. However, the benefits of changed and variances must be in line with our community values and must not simply be for the sole benefit of a few.”
Lennox and Frisch offered solutions other than an electronic sign for the Chophouse dilemma, but Jangula shot them down saying the sign bylaw wouldn’t permit those concepts.
But, in fact, those alternate solutions could have been permitted by a variance granted by council, which it then proceeded to grant the business owner.