GARDENA — Sure, Jolly Martin knows that many cities have strict ordinances to regulate signs. But that doesn't mean he likes them.
"I've driven through these towns that have very repressive sign ordinances and they are boring little places inhabited by boring little people," the 37-year-old businessman said. "The towns don't have any character. It's kind of like drinking lukewarm coffee."
For the past four months, Martin, owner of the Gardena Jewelry and Loan Co., a pawn shop, has spearheaded a drive here to persuade the City of Gardena to scrap a proposed sign ordinance that he believes is not only too restrictive, but "frighteningly anti-business."
While it is likely to be at least several weeks before the result of his efforts is known, city officials said Martin and a handful of angry merchants have already created enough concern in the Planning Commission to cause it to hold six public hearings on the matter. A seventh hearing is scheduled next month.
Some city officials, including Planning Commission Chairman Bruce Dutton, who has served on the five-member board for eight years, cannot recall another issue that has led to such prolonged debate.
"I would say we have definitely gone beyond what ordinarily would happen with something such as this," Dutton said. Added Hayward Fong, Gardena's community development director: "We haven't had such a touchy issue of late."
The commission began hearings on the proposed ordinance in January, almost five years after the City Council, concerned about a proliferation of billboards, instructed the planning department to draft an ordinance to regulate them.
While the council immediately approved a law that prohibited any new billboards and other "off-premises" signs, it also ordered planners to come up with an entirely new ordinance to replace one that does little more than require businesses to maintain their signs in a safe and attractive manner.
"Basically, what we did was look at our surrounding neighbors in the South Bay area and Los Angeles County, and we looked at some of the ordinances these cities had adopted," explained Roy Kato, the city's chief planner. "We then applied these ordinances to our own situation here."
Besides requiring businesses to maintain their signs, the proposed ordinance would prohibit electrical signs that flash or move (except those displaying the time and temperature), inflatable or rooftop signs, and signs painted on exterior walls.
Existing signs that fall within these categories may remain, but the city could require a business owner to remove them after five years. The city would pay the merchant the fair market value of the sign.
From a practical standpoint, the city could not afford to purchase all nonconforming signs, but the regulation would serve as a deterrent and allow the city to take down any signs deemed particularly offensive, several city officials said.
The ordinance also states that temporary window signs cannot cover more than 25% of the window area, and it limits the size of wall, pole and projecting signs according to the size of the building or the property they sit on.
$850 Fee Required
Any business owner seeking a variance from the ordinance must pay an $850 fee whether the request is granted or not. The fee is an estimate of what it would cost the planning department to process the request, Fong said.
Dutton and other city officials defend the ordinance's intent, saying it attempts to balance the community's aesthetic needs with the business owners' practical need to advertise. At least one businessman, Richard Luna, owner of Loonies Bin, a gift shop, believes that the ordinance should be approved with little modification.
"At first I was slightly against it because I thought Big Brother was going to take over," Luna said, but then he took a tour of the city and changed his mind.
"I look up and down my street and see all these battered signs and it looks terrible," he said.
But Martin and other merchants said they believe the ordinance is simply not needed in Gardena, and discriminates against small business owners who cannot afford to advertise in newspapers or on television and radio.
No Big Malls
Unlike other cities, such as Torrance, which approved an ordinance in 1969 that is almost identical to the one being proposed in Gardena, the city's businesses cannot rely on large shopping malls or chain stores to lure customers to their doors, they said.
"In Torrance they can do more dictating," said Tom Spears, whose family has operated a television and appliance store in Gardena since 1929. "But with no major businesses here in Gardena, we are all struggling."
"In the beach cities, I can understand why they would want some kind of sign ordinance because you are going to get the citizens screaming . . . if you block the ocean views," Martin said. "But in Gardena, if you want to look at the ocean you have to be on the 50th story of something."