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Santa Barbara Committee to Consider Sign Policy Changes

Some dramatic changes could be coming to the way Santa Barbara regulates signs displayed by businesses, nonprofits and others following a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision citing First Amendment rights.

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to appoint an 11-person "sign ordinance review committee" to determine whether the city complies with a ruling that questions whether officials can discriminate against the content of a sign’s message.

In a June decision, the Supreme Court said the city of Gilbert outside Phoenix, Arizona, violated a church group’s freedom of speech rights by making it adhere to “content-based” sign regulations.

The temporary signs in question advertised church-related meetings.

By those standards, parts of Santa Barbara’s existing sign ordinance would also be unconstitutional.

“I’m not saying by any means that you can’t regulate signs anymore,” City Attorney Ariel Calonne said. “In my view, we need to take a look at the sign ordinance and try and update it to match what the court says.”

It’ll take at least a year for the review committee to come up with recommendations that would be forwarded to the ordinance committee and then the full council.

Calonne contended Santa Barbara’s sign ordinance aligns with that of hundreds of cities, enforcing stricter rules for temporary signs that direct the public to nonprofit group events than for other messages.

The Supreme Court decreed that by categorizing sign regulations by message — temporary, political or ideological — the town was discriminating on the basis of content, regardless of motive or the fact that the rules applied to everyone.

In Santa Barbara, regulations distinguish between construction signs, election signs, real estate signs, open house signs and more. Rules establish different size, location and timing criteria for each.

New sign regulations would not refer to the content of the sign to establish different regulatory requirements, unless a compelling government interest like traffic safety could be established, Calonne said.

He confirmed the city itself might have some signs that need to be changed.

“Signs are — in many instances — the lifeblood of businesses,” Calonne said.

Councilmen Frank Hotchkiss and Gregg Hart volunteered to sit on the committee and are set to bring recommendations for nine other members to a future council meeting.

The rest of the committee will include one sign committee member, one Architectural Board of Review member, one Historic Landmarks Commission member, one planning commissioner, one Chamber of Commerce representative, one Santa Barbara Association of Realtors representative, two at-large residential community members, and one news media representative or First Amendment advocate.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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