Commissioners table scenic corridor sign regulations

by Chris Peterson
Editor | May 20, 2020 7:06 AM

Flathead County Commissioners last week unanimously voted to table changes to sign regulations in the scenic corridor, citing concerns about the public’s ability to comment on the changes.

County Commissioner Pam Holmquist said she had concerns about callers that listened in on a public hearing not being able to make comments to the board. She said she also had questions for county planning director Mark Mussman on the changes, though she didn’t ask Mussman her questions during the meeting.

While many municipalities and boards have gone to Zoom or other videoconference meetings due to concerns about the coronavirus, the county commissioner’s meetings are still open to the public in-person.

County administrator Mike Pence noted the county has purchased a state-of-the-art teleconference system, it just hasn’t arrived yet.

Pence said the commissioners chambers can fit about 20 people with proper social distancing.

There was some question about whether the county could take public testimony over the phone. Holmquist opined that they could, but other staff had reservations.

“Public comment is public comment,” Holmquist said.

After the meeting, the Hungry Horse News contacted Freedom of Information attorney Mike Meloy. In an email, he said the call-in aspect “wasn’t great, but it would be pretty good in these times of pandemic weirdness.”

The regulations continue to prohibit billboards in the corridor, which include roads like U.S. Highway 2 to Marias Pass. The current billboards are grandfathered in, but it further defines an off-premise sign to read, “A sign advertising a use, facility, service, or product that is not located, sold. Or manufactured on the same premise as the sign.”

Mussman explained to the board that the proposed language is caused, in part, by a business that owned land in Whitefish, but put up a sign that advertised a business in Columbia Falls.

The new regulations also speak to businesses that have a drive-through window, like a restaurant or coffee shop, limiting them to “One sign that does not exceed 8 square-feet in size, 4 feet in height and within 6 feet from a curb cut; one sign that does not exceed 32 square-feet in size, 8 feet in height and within 10 feet from the building; and one portable sign per establishment.”

The proposed regulations also allow for residential signs “not exceeding 6 square feet in area and a freestanding or ground sign shall not exceed 8 feet above ground elevation.”

The regulations received support from Whitefish City Planning Director Dave Taylor.

“Whitefish is surrounded by the County Scenic Corridor Overlay zone on Highway 40 as well as Highway 93 north of Whitefish, so protecting those areas from visual blight is important to our community. The proposed changes re-enforced that off-premise signs such as billboards are not allowed in Scenic Corridors and they set limits on sign sizes on non-commercial property. That’s definitely a step in the right direction to help protect the gorgeous views around our valley,” he said in an email to the Hungry Horse News.

But Taylor still lamented that the regulations allow for large on-premise signs that are based on lot size.

“Unfortunately, the changes didn’t limit the size or number of what I feel are quite excessive commercial signs allowed on-premise in the scenic corridor and elsewhere in the County, where properties with big buildings or long frontages can have billboard-sized commercial signs. That visual clutter detracts from property values and the beauty of our valley, and smaller, tasteful signs are just as effective in drawing customers to businesses. Hopefully that is something the county planning board and commissioners can also address at some point.”

Under the current regs, the maximum scenic corridor sign size for a building with 251 or more feet of highway footage is 432 square feet.