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Auto Center Replacement Sign Protested

Aesthetics: The larger billboard would dwarf the existing one and include a large television screen. Dealers say a new overpass makes the change necessary.


OXNARD — Rio Lindo residents are upset about a proposal to replace the lighted auto center sign on the Ventura Freeway with a $1-million high-tech display and giant television screen.

At almost 90 feet high, the new sign would dwarf the existing one and overwhelm the neighborhood, residents say. But officials of the Oxnard Auto Center Assn. say they need a bigger, showier sign to compete with the highly visible Ventura Auto Center down the road.

"Nobody really knows the auto center is next to the freeway," said association President Larry Lee. Visibility is a big factor in drawing customers and bringing more sales tax dollars to Oxnard, Lee said.

Compounding the problem is the new overpass at Rose Avenue, which is 15 feet higher than the old bridge and has reduced drivers' view of the 10-year-old sign, auto center representatives told residents at a meeting last week.

This happens to anyone who lives near an auto mall, said architect and Ventura Planning Commissioner Curt Stiles, who has created signs for auto malls across Southern California. Stiles said car dealers are "notorious" for outdoing each other with bigger, flashier signs, and when residents oppose the displays, dealers often cite the tax money a city would lose if the dealers moved.

So far, no dealer is threatening to leave Oxnard, but the city would feel it if they did. In 1999, the center generated $900,000 in sales tax revenue, about 5% of the city's total sales tax budget, said Stan Kleinman, Oxnard's finance director.

Bigger signs, Stiles said, rarely mean more customers, and they are a nuisance to drivers.

"He's driving along and there's a TV screen there and it's the same driver who can't go five minutes without a cell phone," Stiles said.

Ventura resident Bill Fulton, an author and planning expert who has written on the competition between west county retailers along the Ventura Freeway, said the most successful auto dealer operations seem to be the malls that have marketed their location successfully. He called the Cerritos Auto Center and Thousand Oaks Auto Mall successes and said even Oxnard's auto center has marketed well.

"When you see an ad for Oxnard Auto Mall, you already know where that is," Fulton said.

Oxnard's auto center might be willing to compromise. Some residents say they can live with a bigger sign if it is only 15 to 20 feet higher than the current one, to make up for lost visibility from the bridge.

Lee said the center is willing to consider the idea.

"We want to work something out that will be a significant landmark for Oxnard and we want the best for our community as well as the auto center," he said.

Residents want assurances the sign won't light up their neighborhoods. Lee said the TV screen, which uses the same technology as a laptop computer display, generates less light than the lightbulbs on the existing sign.

Eleanor Branthoover, chairwoman of the Rio Lindo Neighborhood Council, said the sign's height is the biggest worry, and she is eager to see if the dealers bring a proposal for a smaller sign when the matter comes before the Planning Commission at its meeting at 7 tonight at City Hall, 305 W. 3rd St.

"If they had gone to 87 feet high, my goodness, the people in the two-story homes around us could read the sign from their bedroom," Branthoover said.

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