Invermere Council divided on digital sign

Nonprofit group already ordered sign; Council debates whether it should be there at all

Controversy over digital signs continues to simmer at Invermere council, including right through the two most recent council meetings, this time sparked by a nearly year-old Rotary Club proposal to set up an electronic community message board in downtown Invermere.

Rotary’s planned double-sided sign will be part of the already-existing AG Valley Foods free-standing sign on the corner of 7th Avenue (Invermere’s main street) and 9th Street, and formally received council’s nod of approval at its Tuesday, May 23rd meeting, but not before (earlier in the May 23rd meeting) council U-turned on a unanimous made decision at its Thursday, May 11th meeting asking Rotary to hold an open house to provide more information about the sign to public.

Throughout both meetings, council members expressed diverging views on the electronic sign, its location, and on whether or not further community input was needed prior to giving the sign the development variance permit it needed. The permit is required because current Invermere bylaws do not allow for electronic, animated or backlit signs, and because the modified AG Valley Foods sign will be slightly higher than what is currently allow in Invermere’s sign bylaw.

The matter initially came forward to council during its Thursday, May 11th meeting, in the form of a formal request for the necessary variance permit, prompting lengthy and divided discussion, with frequent references to council having approved — by a narrow three-to-two vote — a variance permit for A&W’s electronic sign in Athalmer earlier this year.

Talk on the issue during the May 11th meeting began with Invermere planner Rory Hromadnik presenting to council the result of a public notification process carried out by the district in relation to Rotary’s proposed sign. Hromadnik told council that the district had sent out the notifications to nearby businesses and residents, seeking comments, and had received back four, all of which expressed concern about the sign.

“They considered it to be tacky and in a poor location,” Hromadnik summarized. “Some said it could be a deterrent to renting or selling in the future.”

Other respondents cited concern about the potential to distract drivers at the intersection, about light pollution, and about the sign not fitting its surroundings, he elaborated.

“They think if we’re going to do it, there’s better places,” reported Hromadnik.

“We’ve asked for comments, and we need to take them seriously,” said councillor Greg Anderson. “I am wondering, however, if people really understand what kind of sign it is. It is a little message board. If they feel so vehement about it, do they understand the scale?”

Hromadnik conceded it may be possible they don’t, but said he had sent the design drawings for the sign as part of the notification packages.

“These letters highlight some of the concerns I have. It could be distracting. You could be at that intersection in a car, take your eyes off the road to read the sign and you don’t see kids crossing the road,” said councillor Paul Denchuk, who has been vocal in his opposition to digital signs in town.

“I’ve seen them in other communities and I agree they look tacky,” continued Denchuk. “If we’re going down that road (of allowing electronic signs), we need to have a larger community conversation with all Invermere residents, not just a mail out to the people or businesses closest to any given sign.”

Councillor Al Miller weighed in, saying he is in favour of the Rotary sign.

“It’s not flashing and it’s not animated like the A&W sign is,” said Miller, adding the LED lights on the Rotary sign will focus down rather than up, thereby reducing light pollution, and that the sign messaging would be controlled by the District of Invermere, not a private business or a community group.

“I think it’s an ideal location. If you’re trying to get word out about community events, you need a busy location,” he said. “Creston has three reader boards similar to this, and when I drove through Creston (a few weeks ago) it certainly wasn’t a distraction and I didn’t think it looked bad.”

Denchuk cited discussions when council decided on the A&W sign, and pointed out that at the time, council members voiced opinions that allowing the A&W sign wouldn’t led to more electronic signs, which Denchuk said has clearly proven not to be the case.

“It’s a slippery slope we’ve started down, and I don’t like the location (of the proposed Rotary sign). It sets a tone. It’s right at the start of town. It’s like our entrance,” he said. “It’s not just the downtown businesses that have ownership of the downtown, it’s the entire community. We all have a stake in how our downtown looks. I don’t think we should be making this decision in a silo. We need community input.”

Denchuk also disagreed with other council members supporting the sign solely because it was being proposed by Rotary and would promote community happenings.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s selling lettuce or broadcasting community events, the question is what kind of signs are appropriate for downtown Invermere,” he said. “This is the second one (electronic sign) this year. We’ll see another (digital sign proposal) before the end of the year. We’ve cracked this wide open.”

A pair of Invermere residents sitting in the gallery at the May 11th meeting also jumped in to voice their opinions.

“I think these concerns (in the four responses the district got during the notification process) are legitimate. I already feel distracted when driving in town, we don’t need another distraction. Reading the sign while in your car could be like (talking on) a cellphone,” said Carol Gordon. “I realize Creston has some (digital signs), but Creston and Invermere have completely different layouts for traffic, different intersections. I’m concerned about safety.”

Karl Conway said that while several council members say they support the sign, it seems some do so with reluctance.

“It’s pretty clear we’re (Invermere residents) not excited about backlit signs,” he said. “It’s also clear this sign contravenes the district’s sign bylaw. I find it difficult to accept the logic that council will accept this sign because it’s for community events, but the next one (digital sign) will not get a positive response (from council).”

Several council members cited fairness to Rotary since the proposal — first made last summer, during a meeting at which Denchuk was absent — initially got a warm response from council, although no official vote of final approval was held, and said that the club had even gone so far as to have already ordered the sign.

Invermere chief administrative officer Chris Prosser confirmed that the sign is already ordered and will cost $28,000, which he pointed out is actually cheap when it comes to digital signs (mid-range electronic signs cost $60,000 to $70,000).

In then end council decided, unanimously, at the May 11th meeting, to table (suspend consideration of) the development variance permit application and ask the Rotary Club to organize an open house to provide more information about the sign to Invermere residents.

However, less than two weeks later, the topic was again on the agenda for the May 23rd council meeting, with Miller leading a change of heart and putting forward a motion to rescind the resolution on the open house, saying that electronic signs are part of the modern world and that “I think actually it’s (the sign) going to look quite nice.”

Miller and several other councillors pointed out that the process had begun with a proposal from the Rotary Club last July and August, and that Rotary had already, at that point, addressed many of the issues and concerns raised by the letters writers and Denchuk.

A delegation from the Rotary Club — consisting of Rotary president Darrell Smith, community message board project leader Hermann Mauthner, and a technical expert from a Cranbrook-based sign company — made a presentation to council and the packed audience gallery during the May 23rd meeting.

In the presentation Smith outlined the timeline of the project, starting last July and proceeding through to the district staff’s recommendation to approve the development variance permit for the project in early May this year, and pointing out that a majority of council members had voiced support for the sign at just about every turn in the process.

“Over time Rotary has experienced some resistance to projects, such as polio inoculations on the international front, or here in the valley, the locations of washrooms, the Splash Park, the Rotary ball park, and the Mount Nelson Athletic Park. Not 100 per cent of the community was supportive of these projects, but we can all agree, they are great additions to the community,” said Smith, adding that out that of all the notifications sent out, the district only received four back.

Anderson agreed that the respondents were “a small percentage” and said he was initially in favour of going to an open house so that the community, including sign opponents, could have the chance to learn more about the sign, and that Rotary’s presentation at the council meeting — which sign opponents were welcome to attend — had fulfilled that information sharing objective. He added that, with that now done, he was in favour of moving ahead with the sign.

Denchuk re-iterated his opposition and implored his fellow councillors to consider having more community input on the project.

“We have started this program down in Athalmer (with the A&W) sign). I’m reaching out to you guys (fellow council members), asking to contain it to one spot (Athalmer) in town. Once it flips up to the downtown, it’s the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We have a certain niche in our downtown, that’s why tourists come here. They want that small town feel. Electronic signs don’t fit that.”

Invermere mayor Gerry Taft concurred that he doesn’t like digital signs, but said he’d make an exception for this one.

“A lot of digital signs — think of the strip in Cranbrook — are really not that pleasant. They are not aesthetically pleasing and they do not suggest ‘quaint mountain town’. They suggest highway strip, fast food and car dealerships,” said Taft. “But the (community) messages on the sign and the group (Rotary) behind it, to me that has be part of the picture and we need to consider that.”

Residents sitting in the gallery in May 23rd meeting (as at the May 11th meeting) jumped in to voice their opinions, with some in favour of the sign, some opposed, and some suggesting its not enough.

“I think your idea is great. It actually think it needs to be expanded. There should be another similar sign closer to the highway,” said Nick Gibbs.

In contrast, Trevor Pryndik said “I think it’s a terrible spot — it would be an eyesore right at the real start of downtown.”

At the end of discussion council voted four to one (with Denchuk the sole dissenting vote), to rescind the open house motion, and then later in the May 23rd meeting, again voted four to one (with Denchuk again opposed) to give the Rotary Club sign the necessary variance permit to go ahead.

A larger community discussion on the look and feel of downtown Invermere is in the works, however, as later on still in the May 23rd meeting, council directed staff to review and update OCP design guidelines, including signage, architectural guidelines, and colour schemes — and to undertake public consultation to that end.