The incorporation of Liberty Lake as Spokane County’s newest city in 2001 included a variety of civic initiatives, from improving police protection to maintaining local roads.
Another one of the motivating factors for establishing a municipality involved the tempering of commercial signs.
With the retail sprawl of Spokane Valley to the west serving as an example of how billboards, banners and road placards can clutter a community, Liberty Lake officials made it a point to rein in signage during the first year of cityhood. Standards adopted in February 2002 ruled out billboards, flashing signs and roof signs as well as most reader boards and freestanding signage.
Restrictions were also placed on the size and placement of banners along with monument signs.
“It was one of the first issues we tackled,” said Doug Smith, Liberty Lake Planning and Community Development director. “One of the original considerations of incorporation was how to deal with the threat of billboards and other signs. It impacts the community as a whole. When you have signs and banners all over the place, it runs counter to the goals we’re trying to achieve.”
A number of businesses, meanwhile, were less than thrilled about the new policies. To this day, the city receives its share of complaints about the code.
Liberty Lake Council Member Judi Owens, an original member of the council who helped work on the 2002 statutes, said the approach to conservative signage has become part of the fabric of the community.
“Signs can take away the view, frankly,” Owens said. “If we changed it and people started seeing 150-foot signs, I’m sure they would say something.”
These days, the city is working on a compromise that would increase the number of signs throughout Liberty Lake while maintaining the understated look as outlined in the original ordinance.
A “wayfinding signage” program would feature store locators, entrance signs and business district monuments, all low to the ground in subtle stone or brick. City officials say the goal is help residents and visitors arrive at their destinations easier while maintaining the aesthetic quality of the community.
For businesses like MasterCraft Inland Northwest, a boat dealership in the western portion of Liberty Lake, the wayfinding idea represents “a start,” according to general manager Don Taylor who has expressed disagreement with the city’s signage policies in the past, particularly in regards to banners.
“It’s something,” Taylor said. “I think it will be good that people will have directions to a business. We’re off the freeway, so people see us, but it could be some help in how to get here.”
The wayfinding program did receive a $100,000 earmark in the 2010 budget, but not before concern was expressed by several council members last month. Funding for the program was eventually approved by a 5-2 count.
Smith said the city expects to recoup approximately $50,000 in the first year of the project – businesses that participate will be charged an annual fee of around $400. At the final budget meeting, Council Member Ryan Romney said “it wouldn’t be realistic to expect $50,000 in revenue” though others, like Council Member Susan Schuler, said she had talked to a number of businesses who supported the idea.
For his part, Taylor said the boat store would consider being included in the program “for a nominal fee.”
Beginning last August, the city hosted three meetings and a public workshop to discuss benefits, potential locations and designs associated with the program. Only about 10 percent of businesses responded to an information letter mailed out last summer to 200 commercial addressess providing an overview of the wayfinding concept.
The original plan separated the city into five business districts with a “gateway monument” included at the entrance of each district. A total of 10 “trailblazer” signs, featuring businesses and other points of interest like parks, golf courses and municipal buildings would be dispersed throughout individual districts.
The uniform design would foster commercial awareness and “a true sense of place for the community,” according to a city Power Point presentation.
Last week, the Liberty Lake Planning Commission met to discuss wayfinding signage and issued a recommendation that the city implement the program with some modifications, including the inclusion of more specific descriptions of commercial services on the signs. Smith said the matter will next go to the City Council for review.
“I’d like to think we’ve taken a balanced approach,” Smith said. “I think there is still room for improvement.”