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Electronic signs? Spare me!
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I've been editor of this paper, following issues for over 20 years. That gives me a unique historical perspective on city actions. I've seen council members and mayors and city managers and planning commissioners come and go. When it comes to billboards, city staff members have never been fans of them. They have long maintained that they add to a cluttered and trashy look along Highway 99. And I agree. But the Planning Commissions and City Councils have never been much to say "no" to them.

I feel the council sold out the community in 2004 when it allowed Spartan Media billboard company to add yet another ugly billboard to the Hwy. 99 corridor when they offered the backside facing 99 for city use. (That's the billboard near the Whitmore Avenue overpass with the city logo on it.) The council should have rejected that billboard because it violated the city's rule that billboards be more than 1,000 feet from the next closest billboard. They also "broke the rules" in allowing a 56-foot tall sign over the maximum limit of 40 feet.

Ken Lane has consistently had a liberal view on billboards. Chris Vierra has been less enthusiastic but has supported them, too. Cannella has always leaned against billboards.

It's a bit disconcerting especially since the Great Valley Center has recommended that cities along Highway 99 get away from the practice. Billboards are hard to find in Modesto and Turlock but are replete in Ceres. In fact, Ceres has 1.5 to three times the density of billboards as the city of Modesto and 6.5 to 20 times the density of billboards in Turlock. To add insult to injury, Ceres billboards generally advertise businesses in Turlock and Modesto and elsewhere.

True, there is a blanket moratorium on new billboards, but last week four of the five councilmen seemed especially open to allowing all existing billboards along Highway 99 to be turned into electronic billboards if their owners see fit. Insurance agency owner Dirk Wyatt would like to win city approval for such a sign at Orchard Park Center on Mitchell Road. He also suggested that the city should allow electronic billboards along Highway 99, where he owns four or five of them. Mayor Cannella seemed particularly deadset against the idea, saying that those signs on Highway and any others along the main thoroughfares like Mitchell and Hatch might resemble the Las Vegas strip.

City staff, bogged down with other big planning matters, has not gotten around to the revamping the sign ordinance for this matter to be studied. But last week the council put in a plug for electronic signs. Lane pushed for making the sign ordinance re-write a priority issue, suddenly finding great reason to call it a priority item that should cut the line of council projects and priorities already established at study sessions.

Councilman Guillermo Ochoa uttered a bizarre contradiction last week when he first said that he saw nothing aesthetically wrong with electronic signs but then noted his only concern might be light pollution. You can't have it both ways, councilman. It can't be aesthetically pleasing and obnoxious to the eyes at the same time.

I cannot believe the incredible distraction of the Razzari Ford sign in Merced on dark nights. And once while shopping at the Home Depot in Turlock I was dismayed at the brightness of Turlock Auto Plaza's electronic sign down the freeway. Yeah, I know that Wyatt's sign provider suggests that those signs aren't equipped with new technology that automatically dims at night but all electronic signs are a distraction, period. Even billboards are visually distracting - that's why people pay good money to put their message on them.

I agree with Dana Karcher, director of Scenic California based in Bakersfield, who told the council in 2003 that "how we look is very important" and that billboards are "litter on a stick."

I have not forgotten how in 2003 the council bent over backwards to allow Wyatt to erect a billboard which violated the city billboard policy. Despite staff objections, the council allowed the billboard up (in the county but within the city's sphere of influence). City sign standards dictate that billboards must have a minimum of a 1,000-foot separation from the next sign but Wyatt's sign was 510 feet from the next.

The council's eagerness to please Wyatt is a bit troubling, especially the 4-1 vote to give Wyatt back his $2,250 application fee last week. And the city needs to quit being soft as Jell-O whenever Wyatt or others ask for things that make Ceres uglier.

Billboards are not a matter of freedom nor of free enterprise more than they are of being an attractive community. After all, there are plenty of ways to advertise a Ceres business without inflicting visual blight on a community's sense of aesthetics. We have zoning so that we have more attractive communities.

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