Council considers strict sign rules, dealerships boggled

The Gilroy City Council held a regular meeting Monday, Jan. 9 at

In the midst of a city-led crackdown on business signs, auto dealers are pleading with city council to let them advertise with balloons, flags and certain types of large signs – all which are currently illegal in Gilroy – saying that the law squelches business.  

The current ordinance puts strict limits on A-frame signs, temporary banners, window signs, off-site signs, and completely prohibits flags, balloons, streamers and signs with flashing lights, among other regulations.

The purpose of the ordinance is to maintain community aesthetics, said Kristi Abrams, the community development director for the city of Gilroy. Abrams said that a city running rampant banners and signs would be a very busy atmosphere, and this law is in place to curb that busyness. 

“If I don’t use (flags), I just look like another parking lot,” Randy Sciana, owner of See Grins RV – the old Wal-Mart building on the east side of Highway 101 – said Wednesday. Sciana uses elongated American flags on poles to attract people to his used RV lot, which are prohibited in current city code. Sciana said he hopes that the city will back down on some areas of the ordinance, or at least make an exception for auto dealers. 

“We have an invested interest to make our stores look pretty, and this is where common sense comes in. We don’t need government to tell us what signs to put up or not put up,” Sciana said. 

Abrams said the city issues citations for illegal signs and gives the business owner 10 days to comply with no penalty. But if they do not take down the illegal signs within 10 days, they face fines that start at $100 that can rise to $1,000, the longer they wait, she said. 

“Our main goal is compliance,” Abrams said. 

During Monday’s city council meeting, city Code Enforcement Officer Scott Barron presented an overview of the ordinance and the challenges posed in enforcing it. Three car dealership businessmen spoke at the meeting, Sciana included.  

Leonard Harrington, owner of South County Nissan Hyundai asked the council to consider keeping in step with the sign laws in other jurisdictions, noting that Gilroy auto dealers must compete with San Jose, the “biggest car Mecca in the state.”

Harrington said there are three empty stores at the Gilroy Auto Mall located along Chestnut Street, and that those who are left are just starting to get back on their feet after the recession. 

“We’re here to do business, employ people, and raise our families,” Harrington said in closing.

Sciana thanked the council for looking into this “important issue,” but asked them to simplify and scale back the ordinance. 

“Yes, some of the banners are hideous and need to be removed, but take a look at what we do for the community,” he said, referring to the revenue (the city’s most recent report showed sales tax revenue from dealerships was $287,529 in the third quarter, up 35 percent from last year) and jobs that the auto industry brings to the city.

Councilman Dion Bracco agreed that car dealers should be exempt from some of the sign ordinances, but said that the city should be careful who qualifies.

“Not every little dealer that has two cars on First Street should count,” Bracco said. “Also, no liquor store needs 18 beer signs in their window, they’re a liquor store, it’s obvious that they sell Corona.”

Councilman Peter Arellano took a staunch stance against the ordinances. 

“Come on, folks, wake up. We are limiting business,” he said at the meeting, heated. “If these auto dealers want a gorilla or dinosaur on their roof to sell cars, let them have it.”

Arellano said that if city council planned to have a study session, the topic should be on how to limit the ordinance. 

Councilman Bob Dillon took a slightly less staunch approach, but appeared skeptical nonetheless.

“Cops have better things to do than run around measuring signs of auto dealers,” Dillon said. 

Dillon also said he thought the city shouldn’t go to all the work in holding a study session if the laws are just going to be filed into a “dusty old book where everyone ignores them.”

By the end of the March 19 meeting, council members decided to hold a special study session to further tackle the sign issue on April 30. The session will be open to business owners and community members who would like to give feedback on the ordinance. Mayor Al Pinheiro said that during the session, city council can hopefully strike a balance between fostering local business without compromising city aesthetics. This won’t be the first time the city has met concerning sign laws. The ordinance, which has been around since 1983, has been revised and expanded by the city several times.

There is nothing in the ordinance that specifically mentions human billboards – people who are hired to twirl signs on street corners. 

Another controversial aspect of the ordinance is real estate open house signs are prohibited unless they are directly in front of the house where the event takes place. Some real estate agents, who often use directional signs that lead people to the location of the open house, have asked city council to make an exception in the ordinance for these signs. In an already challenged market, the real estate community told the city they don’t need laws that could obstruct sales. 

Patty Filice, real estate agent at Intero Real Estate, said she can understand why the city needs to limit signage, but said she hopes that the city will compromise with real estate open house signs, which she said are a valuable marketing tool for real estate agents.

“With the niceness of the ability to advertise homes on the Internet, we catch some people that way, but we still do have a lot of old fashioned people who drive around neighborhoods they like and stop if they see signs,” Filice said. “I think this (rule) would make it more difficult for people to sell their homes.”


Ordinance proposal

Some signs that would be illegal if the ordinance passes

– Signs on or projecting above the roof

– Flags, pennants, balloons, streamers and objects “designed to move in wind,” except for approved U.S. and California flags. 

– Flashing light signs

– Any sign designed to move (unless they rotate less than six revolutions per minute)

– Signs painted directly on a building

– Off-site advertising, including billboard and directional signs

– Signs higher than 3 feet above the sidewalk

– For a full list of illegal signs, and exemptions, go to:

A special session on signs, open to the public, will be held at 6 p.m. April 30 in the City Council Chambers. 

More from the meeting:

Council approved a bid for $59,570 on a 7-0 vote for two 2012 model Chevrolet Tahoe police vehicles.

On a 7-0 vote, council to approve a 50-year library building lease with the Santa Clara Library District.

Council voted 7-0 on a resolution to order the Gilroy Fire Department to on a weed abatement program for abandoned and vacant lots.

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