Plea made for business signs facing Interstate 5


Staff writer

Fedral Way officials are considering changing the city sign code as it applies to businesses located along freeways as a way to encourage business development in Federal Way.

The contemplated code changes haven’t been written yet; the City Council last week added the project to the Planning Commission’s 2003 work program. City attorney Pat Richardson said it’s too soon to speculate how changes might affect businesses.

Former council member Ron Gintz sent a letter to the city last month asking officials to reconsider the sign code for businesses located along Interstate 5.

He said the code works along Pacific Highway South because the road has been transformed from the its role as the primary north-south highway connecting Seattle and Tacoma, before I-5 was built, to more of a main street running through several cities.

Federal Way is trying to improve the aesthetic quality downtown and boost pedestrian use and density along Pacific Highway. Because speed limits have been lowered to accommodate the changes, it made sense for the city to prohibit tall pole signs; drivers no longer needed to see the signs from far away to be able to stop in time, Gintz said.

The sign code, adopted in 1990 and amended in 1995, required business owners to convert their tall single- or multi-tenant pole signs to pedestal or ground-mounted signs. In 2000, code enforcement officers began fining businesses $100 a day for each day non-conforming sign left in place.

Several business owners sued the city, saying they should have been compensated under the Scenic Vistas Act, a state law that requires cities and counties to compensate business owners located along state highways if they have to remove or change their signs to comply with local laws.

Attorneys for the business owners argued the city was required to financially compensate business owners whose properties ran along State Route 99 (Pacific Highway) or Interstate 5, but city officials maintained a 10-year amortization period was fair compensation.

A panel of three state appellate court judges ruled 3-0 in favor of the business owners. But the city appealed, and King County Superior Court Judge Ronald Kessler dismissed the lawsuit, saying businesses didn’t exhaust local avenues for resolution before filing suit.

The business owners appealed, and the case remains waiting to be heard.

Richardson said she didn’t know if changes to the city’s sign code would affect the lawsuit.

In his letter to the city, Gintz said officials should have considered that businesses with frontage along I-5 still need the tall signs so potential customers will be able to see them in time to take an exit.

He said the oversight is something that should be fixed.

“This change is truly addressing a situation which should have been addressed when the sign code was debated and enacted,” he said.

Tom Pierson, chief executive officer of Federal Way Chamber of Commerce, said the business organization hasn’t stated an official position on changes to the sign code, but most members think the idea is a good one.

“The intent wasn’t to affect businesses that backed up to I-5,” he said.

Ultimately, the council is considering the changes as a way to promote development in Federal Way and to dispel the perception that it’s difficult to do business in the city.

“We’re trying to promote our city as a place to develop,” Councilman Dean McColgan said at the council’s Land-Use and Transportation Committee meeting Sept. 29.

The city is already conducting an environmental study in the downtown core so future developers won’t have to, and the city has passed tax incentives for development downtown.

“This would be another one of those incentives,” McColgan said.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565,

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