Coming soon: Big changes to the city’s sign ordinance

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Carmel Chamber President Mo Merhoff said she could be just a few weeks from finally enjoying the fruits of her more than two and a half years of labor.

During that time, Merhoff has been part of a small task force working to bring about substantial changes to the city’s sign ordinance, now more than 30 years old. Merhoff said the difficulties presented by the current sign ordinance are one of the biggest challenges facing Carmel business owners today. The proposed changes, she said, should help all of the city’s businesses and indirectly benefit Carmel residents.

“We have instances of businesses that have never put a sign out front because of this ordinance,” Merhoff said. “The goal is that this spring sometime we’ll have a new sign ordinance, and that would be super.”

More than two years ago, the task force began this process with the city with four major goals in mind: to make the ordinance user-friendly, to eliminate subjectivity in the application of the ordinance, to streamline the approval process and to level the playing field.

Making it user-friendly

A few simple but impactful proposed changes could make understanding and adhering to the ordinance much easier. Merhoff said many sections have been shortened or even rewritten in the current proposal, eliminating unnecessary legalese that she said makes the ordinance difficult to navigate. Additionally, the city’s sign permit specialist has created a visual guide that includes examples of various types of signs. Ultimately, the goal of both the Chamber and the city is to amend the ordinance in a way that will allow businesses to apply for new or different signage without help.

“The general public just wants to be able to it themselves without coming to me and without hiring an attorney,” Boone told the Plan Commission in October.

Eliminating subjectivity

Merhoff said the task force is recommending the elimination of some wording in the ordinance that she said is unnecessary and open for interpretation. Merhoff said examples include wording that says certain types of signs are preferred, though not required.

“It all gets interpreted by the Plan Commission and on any given Tuesday it can change,” she said.

Streamlining the process

Currently, the Plan Commission must approve even minor, simple changes. Merhoff said a business owner recently was forced to drive from Fort Wayne to present a change to a sign after the company had changed names. His presentation, Merhoff said, lasted no more than two minutes before the commission’s Special Studies Committee granted approval.

“Everyone realizes that’s not a good idea,” she said.

Proposed changes include allowing the city’s Dept. of Community Services to act on basic requests.

Leveling the playing field

“If something is good for a business in one area why can’t it work for one somewhere else?” Merhoff said.

The task force is pushing for a sign ordinance that can be applied consistently to all businesses, regardless of location. Currently, businesses in certain areas, such as the Arts & Design District, must adhere to sign regulations different from those applying to the rest of the city. A perfect example, Merhoff said, are the three blade signs outside divvy at Carmel City Center. At its new location in the arts district, the Chamber is limited to the use of window decals and a spot on a street-level sign.

How this affects you

Merhoff said the amended ordinance, when approved, will impact more than just local business owners. In addition to making some businesses easier to locate, the changes could lead to savings for their customers, she said. A simpler ordinance should mean businesses will spend less on sign applications and consequently have fewer costs to pass on to their customers.

The city’s proposed changes to the ordinance include requiring permits for many residential signs. Merhoff said that, if the task force is unsuccessful in getting this new section altered or removed, residents could be required to acquire permits from the city for common signs such as ones advertising yard sales.

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