Crestwood has a long-awaited new sign code unanimously approved by the Board of Aldermen, marking the culmination of nearly half a decade of reviewing the city’s sign regulations.
The process began in the wake of a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of “Reed v. Town of Gilbert,” Arizona, which changed how municipalities can restrict sign content. Justices unanimously ruled that many municipal sign codes unconstitutionally distinguish between certain types of speech, and sign codes need to be revised to make sure restrictions are not based on content or message.
City Administrator Kris Simpson said at that time that like many cities, Crestwood’s sign code distinguished between political yard signs and commercial signs, a division declared unconstitutional after the Supreme Court ruling.
Under the new ruling, cities cannot ban or restrict certain types of signs, such as election signs, while allowing others of the same size such as real-estate signs. Justices ruled that those restrictions violate the First Amendment.
“That Supreme Court decision really made large components of almost every city in the country’s sign code unconstitutional, but also gave a blueprint to how you need to redo them,” Mayor Grant Mabie said before he was elected in November 2018. “A lot of local governments are just now trying to undertake it. There’s still a lot of room to decide (our) community values — signage in a commercial corridor, on residential streets. That’s a major undertaking that we need to take care of.”
Like the zoning code, the city’s sign code hadn’t been significantly changed since the 1980s, Mabie said.
Speaking to the Crestwood-Sunset Hills Kiwanis in January 2019, he said, “I imagine the sign code will in some ways be more controversial than the zoning code — there’s just a lot of give and take on what people view as aesthetically proper, what should be allowed, what shouldn’t be allowed, we just had a debate about electronic signs… There’s a lot of strong opinions there. So be involved in the process and when the sign code gets proposed, let us know what we have right and what we need to improve upon to strike the right balances.”
The city first attempted to develop its sign code revision in-house and turned the task over to the city’s Sign Commission in 2015.
The revisions were first presented to the board in July 2016. Included in the commission’s recommendations was the ability for citizens to post more than two yard ground signs of less than 25 square feet during an election season.
However, the proposed revisions did not make it past aldermen, who failed to pass the changes in August 2016, requesting that the code be sent back for further review.
“This is something that was a little frustrating for me as staff — I don’t recall exactly what happened, but the board never ultimately took a vote on it. The Sign Commission had worked on it with city staff for several months, mainly the Sign Commission, and Planning and Zoning signed off,” Simpson said in spring 2018, describing the process. “The Board of Aldermen had issues with it. We said, ‘OK, let’s not take a vote on this, we’re going to give Simpson our comments and staff will take those comments and present a revised sign code.’ I never got any comments from any aldermen… This went on for several months. I think we all just hit a stopping point.”
After the sign code revisions were rejected by the aldermen, the Sign Commission was dissolved in 2017 in a separate effort to update the city’s code as it pertained to various advisory boards. The city decided to dissolve the sign commission and assign its responsibilities to the Planning and Zoning Commission, which was more in line with other municipalities in the region.
However, the sign code remained a priority for the city, and the issue was revisited in 2018 when the city hired St. Louis-based planning consultant Peckham Guyton Alberts & Viets, or PGAV, to update the city’s zoning code in light of the city’s recently adopted comprehensive plan, which had been written by PGAV.
Although there was no formal vote, it was around that time that aldermen indicated that they wanted the sign code revision to be included in the scope of work by whatever planning firm the city hired for the zoning code update, according to a March 2018 memo from Simpson to the board.
The decision to have the same firm look at both the zoning code and sign code generated some criticism at the time.
“My concern is whether it’s ethical to change the scope of an RFP (request for proposals) after an applicant has already been selected. Adding the sign code update after PGAV was selected gives the appearance of padding the contract to benefit PGAV,” said resident Martha Duchild at the March 2018 meeting prior to the board’s vote to approve the contract with PGAV. “Ultimately the zoning code at its core is a legal document, not a planning document, and the city would be served by selecting a law firm rather than a planning firm to perform the task of updating the zoning code. I strongly encourage the board to reconsider selecting PGAV and also ask that the sign code update be issued as a separate RFP.”
Despite Duchild’s concerns, the contract was approved 7-1 at the same meeting, with then-Ward 3 Alderman Jerry Miguel as the sole dissenting vote.
Prior to adding the sign code revision to the scope of work for PGAV, the zoning code update was budgeted in 2018 for $35,000. However, the project ended up being projected to cost $58,200, in part due to the sign code addition for $13,000.
Rather than amending the 2018 budget, a payment schedule was set up that allowed the city to pay the originally budgeted $35,000 to PGAV in 2018 and the remaining $23,200 the following year.
PGAV finished drafting the sign code revisions in the first half of 2019, and from there it was discussed by the Planning and Zoning Commission, which took the time to gather feedback from residents and business owners through workshops and public hearings on the zoning code.
The planning panel approved the revised zoning code in early November 2019, and a public hearing was held during a Board of Aldermen meeting Nov. 26.
PGAV’s sign code revision was ultimately unanimously approved by the aldermen Jan. 28, with modifications made to it by staff, the city attorney, the Planning and Zoning Commission and the board. Ward 3 Alderman Greg Hall was absent.
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