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City council: Here’s your sign

It appeared to be a simple fix but it took an act of the city council, an attorney and the city administrator to make it happen. Despite the legal stumbling block, the city council was able to pave the way Monday evening for the local Elks lodge to replace a missing sign.

Some 50 or so years ago the local Elks Lodge erected a sign at the corner of what is now Karsch Boulevard and KREI Boulevard. The small four-foot-by-four-foot directional sign sat on posts on property now owned by Miller Feed store. The purpose was to point visitors to the lodge several blocks away on KREI Boulevard.

In the decades since, the municipality passed and repeatedly amended a sign ordinance governing the placement of all types of signs. Somewhere down the line the group amended the ordinance to not allow signs such as the one the Elks had in place on property other than that owned by the organization. Since the Elks sign was already a fixture at its location it was “grandfathered” in, and became exempt from the new laws … that is, until the aging sign fell to inclement weather during the winter.

What the “grandfather” clause in the city’s sign ordinance did not allow was for a new sign to be put up to replace the old one. Acting strictly by the letter of the law, once the old sign went down – regardless of the cause – the validity of that sign was null and void. And not only did the city ordinance say a new sign could not replace the old one, but it municipal law did not contain a provision for the council to make exception to the law.

With no intention of creating a legal battle, and not even suspecting one would possible ensue, the Elks members came to the city council a few months ago requesting permission to replace their sign. They didn’t ask for anything larger or different. They simply wanted to install a new 16-square-foot plastic sign on the same posts where the old sign used to sit. Sounded simple enough.

But then the bureaucracy kicked in. The city ordinance would not allow for such a sign on property not belonging to the Elks, even with the permission of the landowners. The municipal code did allow for the city to erect a small informational sign on city right-of-way, but Karsch Boulevard is a state-owned roadway with a tremendously large right-of-way. If the city agreed to put up a sign meeting the most recent sign ordinance change, the fact of the matter is the sign would be so far off Karsch Boulevard that it wouldn’t be legible. What seemed to make the most sense was to start over with a new sign ordinance.

Councilman Darrel Holdman, chairman of the Administrative Services Committee, began the process of researching similar ordinances already in place in other communities. He found a possible good fit for the city in that it would allow for such directional signs to be placed on city right-of-ways, or even to be placed on private property as long as any entity with jurisdiction over an easement, or right-of-way, gave approval. The problem was, a call to the Missouri Department of Transportation by the city administrator seemed to reveal the state agency would not approve a sign such as the Elks were proposing.

During the council work session in early April the group was to vote on the sign issue. Once it was revealed that a favorable compromise could not be reached – one that would allow the Elks to get their sign back in place – the new ordinance proposed by Holdman hit a stalemate. The matter was tabled for further discussion to be voted on at Monday night’s meeting. Councilman Larry Forsythe, an Elks Lodge trustee, refrained from debate and any vote about the issue at the earlier meeting. He promised to do the same Monday night.

The usual council meeting crowd was in place Monday evening, but it was obvious there were several additional faces in the crowd. As suspected, once the sign issue came up on the agenda the crowd seemed suddenly attentive to everything being said. Michael O’Neil, Exalted Ruler of the Elks Lodge, gave a brief presentation outlining the lodge’s simple desire to have its small sign back in place. He outlined the many good works the fraternal group does for the community, and explained that the sign was not for lodge members as much as for visitors who occasionally have reason to attend a dinner, awards ceremony or some other community effort at the facility.

After some 45 minutes of debate back and forth it looked as of the council would vote down the proposed new sign ordinance, and then take a hard look at retooling the existing law to somehow make it fit the Elks unique situation. But then Councilman Forsythe offered an important piece of information. He announced that he had received word from a MoDOT official earlier in the day that the group could erect its sign in the original location and the state agency would not make an issue of it.

That said, under the proposed new sign ordinance, the Elks could erect a new small sign on the same posts as the previous sign as long as the group had the approval of the landowners, the Millers of Miller Feed, and MoDOT who holds claim to the right-of-way.

With Forsythe indicating he would hold the MoDOT official to his word, the council eventually took up the new sign ordinance and passed it 7-to-0 with Forsythe abstaining from the vote.

With that matter behind them, and the rain still pouring down outside, the council heard from a resident living on Hillsboro Road about a proposed boarding home to be operated in a residence. The man asked the council how the new owner of the house at 214 Hillsboro Road could operate a boarding home, seemingly a for-profit business, within a residential neighborhood. It would seem an ordinance change, or special use permit, would be required, he reasoned.

But that’s not the case, as explained by City Administrator Greg Beavers. A loophole in the law allows a boarding home housing eight or less individuals and no more than two workers to operate in a residentially-zoned home with any zoning change or request for permission from the municipality. The law allowing for such operation is a state law, which supersedes city ordinances.

Beavers explained that the numbers of occupants allowed in boarding homes is governed by space in the home and determined by a state inspection prior to opening for business. He did say the only way the city can influence anything regarding the operation of the group home is if the state allows more than five residents to live in the home. At that point, the administrator explained, the owner would have to comply with more strict building and safety codes.

While the neighbor bringing up the concern wasn’t necessarily pleased with the outcome, he indicated he had research the matter enough to realize the city was limited in what it could do in the case.

As for legislation passed during the meeting, the group approved the new sign ordinance discussed at length. They also approved an ordinance allowing the municipality to essentially borrow $5,555,000 by issuing Certificates of Participation to allow for purchasing necessary water and sewer treatment systems. The need for the radionuclide treatment operation, as well as additional wastewater treatment systems, was discussed at length at the work session earlier in the month.

The council approved a water and sewer rate increase earlier in the month to help retire the $5,555,000 in debt over the next several years.

The group also approved a contract with Donze Construction, Inc., for improvements at city-owned buildings at 102 Industrial Drive. And they approved terminating a redevelopment agreement with Farmington Crossing LLC for a proposed shopping center west of U.S. 67 on the new outer service road.

Koman Properties, based in St. Louis, first approached the city in 2005 about developing a large shopping center on property just west of U.S. 67. The city and developers worked to include the area in a Tax Increment Financing Plan, and complete a development agreement for the shopping center. By 2007, when the shopping center was to be getting underway, the economy was already going soft and large retailers were pulling back from their more aggressive growth plans.

At the same time the city was struggling with disagreements on some fundamental issues, and was in the middle of an effort to recall the sitting mayor. Those struggles slowed the plan for development even more. Eventually it became evident that the timing was not right to make the proposed shopping center happen within the timeframe allowed in the redevelopment agreement.

The first deadline for development came in 2009, and an 18-month extension was requested and granted. When that contract expired in September of 2010 another possible extension was discussed. But in the end, the city administrator explained, the developer did not reply on the final request for an extension.

Contingency contracts once held by the developer on the land for the proposed shopping center have long expired. The land remains for sale, still slated in the city’s long-range comprehensive plan for commercial development, with hopes by city officials that another developer will come forward with a plan for a development and the timing and economy will be better this time.

The TIF district which covers the land in the proposed shopping center development will remain in place until 2028.

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