Sign size debate continues at PC level

Business owners wondering – or complaining – why they can’t have bigger signs like so many of their neighbors already do in Oxford Village will be directed to the council.

“The next time a business owner comes before us requesting a 32-square-foot sign, we’re going to deny it and the rationale for that denial is the council doesn’t want 32-square-foot signs. It’s as simple as that,” said Planning Commission Chairman Gary Douglas. “If you want to change it, lobby the council.”

Last week, planning commissioners spent some time discussing the council’s Aug. 8 decision to reject their recommendation to increase the maximum allowable area for freestanding signs in the Central Business (C-1) and General Business (C-2) zoning districts from 24 to 32 square feet.

Council shot it down in a 3-2 vote.

“I thought that was a very well-reasoned argument (for the size increase),” Douglas said. “We put a lot of time into that recommendation to the council and I was kind of surprised when I read (an article) in the paper that said they had refused to accept it.”

Commissioner Maureen Helmuth, who also serves on council, explained that a majority of council felt like “it’s time to put our feet down and say enough is enough” when it comes to businesses requesting signs larger than the ordinance allows.

Right now, whenever a business wants a sign that’s bigger than the 24 square feet allowed by ordinance, they have to apply for a special use permit from the planning commission.

To streamline things and avoid having more of these special use requests in the future, the planning commission recommended increasing the maximum size in the zoning ordinance.

In light of council’s decision, Douglas asked, “What do we do when somebody asks for a 32-square-foot sign?”

“Because you know they’re going to do that,” he continued. “And they’ve got precedent because they’re going to count the number of businesses on (M-)24 that have 32-square-foot signs and they’re going to say, ‘How can you deny me a sign?’”

Helmuth was “very blunt” with her fellow commissioners in her response.

“We have granted special land uses for signs way more than the planning commission ever should,” she said.

In the past, Helmuth explained, businesses had to go before the zoning board of appeals to get a variance for a larger sign.

“The zoning board of appeals was granting too many variances, so the council took it away from the zoning board of appeals and gave it to the planning commission, thinking the planning commission would not grant as many special land uses,” she said.

But that decision backfired because “the planning commission continuously grants special land uses” for larger signs.

If the planning commission wants to end this practice, Helmuth said the solution is quite simple.

“You just put your foot down and you say, ‘No.’ A quorum of us have to say no,” she said.

Or, Helmuth said, the planning commission could require applicants to give it a “good reason” why they need a sign that exceeds the ordinance limit.

“It seems to me the precedence (of others being allowed to have larger signs) is a very good argument,” Douglas said.

“I don’t believe in precedents. We could just stop (approving requests),” replied Helmuth, who noted “we have all new people” on the planning commission, so there’s no connection to the special land uses granted by previous boards.

Village Planner Chris Khorey, of the Northville-based McKenna Associates, agreed with Helmuth that “special land uses are not precedent-setting in general.”

His “concern” was “if we want to start saying no, we have to come up with a reason why not” based on the criteria the village currently uses for approving or denying special use signs.

Khorey explained it’s “a little bit tough” to tell people they can’t have a larger sign for reasons such as it’s “going to block someone else’s sign” or it’s “going to be out-of-scale with the surroundings” when their neighbors have 32-square-foot signs or “something close to that.”

“That’s where we’re going to have trouble,” he said.

Khorey suggested the special use process could be limited to businesses that want signs that are “a little different” or “creative” in some way as opposed to just requesting “a few more square feet.”

“Everybody’s always going to want a larger sign,” said Helmuth, noting if the village gives someone 32 square feet now, “in a year, he’s going to want 40 square feet.”

“At some point, enough is enough,” she continued. “I guess I don’t know what that point is . . . This planning commission just needs to decide what direction do we want to go with this.”

“Well, I thought we did,” replied Douglas, referring to the recommendation that was rejected by council.

“I don’t disagree with you,” Helmuth said. “And perhaps, I was not the best person to argue that for the council. Maybe if someone else had been there to argue it for me because it was not a great night for the village council.”

Douglas foresees problems because of council’s decision.

“I’m just afraid that we’re buying ourselves some trouble here because regardless of whether or not the actions of (this) commission are precedent-setting . . . the precedent is (sitting) out on the highway,” he said. “I’m not really relishing the idea of having business owners stand before this body saying, ‘How can you deny me this sign when I counted 11 of them out here?’ That strikes me as being very unfair.”

To Helmuth, the answer is simple, just tell the applicants the village council doesn’t want 32-square-foot signs.

“That’s what we’re going to have to fall back on, but I know if I were a business owner and I was faced with that as an argument, I’d be pretty disappointed,” Douglas said.

“I don’t think this planning commission can base their decisions on whether or not the applicant is disappointed,” Helmuth retorted.

“Well, that’s true,” Douglas said. “I’m sure that over time, we’re going to disappoint many people, but I also think that we try to dole out a measure of fairness when we take action.”

Douglas noted he’s “willing to accept” council’s decision, but “I just want to make it clear that . . . we’re probably going to pay a price for this at some point.”


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