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SIGNS OF THE TIMES: City sign ordinance violations abound
With the economy being tight and businesses and individuals scrambling to make every dollar they can, some are skirting city laws with unlicensed signs.

Across the country, municipalities are trying to stem the proliferation of unlawful signs. The trend has been driven by businesses' needs to attract more customers, erecting flashy illegal signs to garner the attention of those driving by. There's also the issue of residents, trying to make extra dollars at yard sales, who plaster their signs illegally on poles rather than take out newspaper ads or free craigslist ads.

While the city of Ceres is growing concerned about the proliferation of unlawful signs, enforcement largely remains complaint driven.

"We don't do a lot of sign ordinance enforcement," said Ceres code enforcement officer Paula Redfern. "We pretty much work off of complaints unless it's a safety issue."

Chief among sign law-breakers are those who attach yard sale signs to telephone or traffic sign poles. Ceres Senior Planner Tom Westbrook said it's illegal for persons to post garage or yard sale signs at any other location than where the sale is.

"The code says that you can have a sign at your house," said Westbrook. "It doesn't say you can have one at the street corner on a telephone pole."

Redfern noted that taping garage or yard sale signs to a car parked on any street is also a violation of the vehicle code and the city sign ordinance.

"Occasionally we go out and tear them down," said Redfern of garage sale signs. "My boss, Frank (Alvarez) recently went out and pulled signs and came back with four or five garbage bags filled wth them. It took him all day long. Two days later they're up again."

Redfern has spent time on Fridays - generally a big garage sale day - looking for illegal sales and signs.

"I've followed the signs and generally the people don't have a yard sale permit and I issue them a citation and tell them they can be cited if they don't remove the signs as well."

Redfern said administrative citations can be issued that zing the offender $100 per sign but admitted "we don't generally do that."

In the business community there's other violations just as plentiful. As businesses fight for more customers, they oftentimes turn to banners, flags, and temporary signs. But, in doing so, businesses obstruct the permanent, licensed signs that are already there.

While entertaining to watch, Redfern said businesses are breaking the law to pay employees, most energetic teens, to stand on the corner holding and flipping signs.

"Sign holders are not legal but we've never had a complaint about any of those guys. Planning rules do not allow it."

Westbrook said cities adopt sign ordinances to create a level playing field for all businesses through a comprehensive set of rules. Additionally, illegal signs reduce traffic safety by obscuring vision and distracting drivers. The ordinance also combats sign clutter for the sake of aethetics.

The city prohibits signs that constitute a potential traffic hazard by being placed in such a manner as to obstruct free and clear vision of pedestrian traffic, or which simulate in size, color, lettering or design any traffic sign or signal.

Illegal signs include those that are within the public right of way, including those on street trees, utility poles, street signals, street lights, street name signs, traffic signs or sidewalks, except official signs or other signs specifically permitted by the ordinance. Noncommercial signs may be displayed in the public right of way upon approval by the City Council.

Other examples of illegal signs are ones that move, swing, rotate, except barber poles, clocks or thermometers. Windblown devices and signs whose movement is designed to attract attention, such as pennants, flags, inflatable signs or balloons, inflatable animals or similar signs, or reflective attachments to sign faces, are prohibited with the exception of those specifically permitted..

A-frame signs, except for real estate signs, are not allowed but are commonly seen around Ceres. The same is true of other portable or freestanding signs not permanently affixed, anchored or secured to the ground or structure on the lot they occupy.

The city does make a provision for temporary signs advertising a special event, such as grand openings and going out of business sales.

In some cases, a business violates the sign ordinance for overdoing it. Such as was the case of a complaint lodged against a Third Street video store recently. A complaint was filed because signs were attached to a car parked in front and on a city sign post. The front of the business was plastered with signs, covering more than the 25 percent of the window space on the business facade.