Citing property rights and keeping local businesses competitive, the Spokane Valley City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to exempt taverns and bars from state rules restricting outdoor signage that advertises brands of booze to four.
By opting out of Washington State Liquor Control Board restrictions, city drinking establishments are governed by local signage codes that had been in place since before March 2010, when the state rules were enacted.
Mayor Tom Towey and Council Member Chuck Hafner voted in favor of keeping the state regulations, which limit retail licensed premised to four outdoor signs referring to alcoholic beverages, brand names or manufacturers. The same state provisions also limit the total signage to 1,600 square inches.
A first reading of the ordinance, a provision that would exempt the city from the state law, was passed by the council with Towey’s support on Feb. 28.
That doesn’t mean, however, that bars and taverns can put up as many outdoor signs as they want. The city’s own side code still applies.
“(Businesses) can’t just put out five monument signs advertising Bud Light or something,” said Council Member Brenda Grassel.
There was some pushback, however, as representatives of the Greater Spokane Substance Abuse Council said that a proliferation of brand-name booze signage sends signals and triggers to kids that it’s OK to drink.
Lynda Fralich, who sits on GSSAC’s policy board, said that she works with adolescents and teens dealing with substance abuse that are often the targets of liquor companies’ “mixed message.” She said the state restrictions of four signs make the most sense.
“They can still advertise, but keep it within the guidelines of March 2010,” she said.
Angela Smith, who said she also works with chemically dependent youth, said that alcohol signage often works as a trigger for relapse behavior. She added that she herself doesn’t drink but seeing the signs “plants thoughts in my mind that I don’t want to have.”
Linda Thompson, GSSAC executive director, said being more permissive on signage is one more step toward “the normalization of alcohol” and reflects poorly on Spokane Valley.
“I’m proud of this city,” she said. “I would hope you would look to the greater good.”
Hafner, who worked on the formation of GSSAC three decades ago, said that his experiences as an educator and school administrator – which included encounters with children who missed breakfast because their parents were passed out from drinking or having to eject drunken fathers from school basketball games -- made it difficult to support the ordinance.
Towey said he believes the signs are to sell a specific product and not to bring people into establishments. For that reason, “my vote is to keep it to four,” he said.
Council Member Dean Grafos said he sees the matter differently.
“Just across the border in Spokane County, you can put up as many beer signs as you want,” he said. “I think we need our local businesses on a level playing field with our neighbors.”
Council Member Arne Woodard agreed.
“I support what GSSAC is doing, but it really does come down to personal choice (whether to drink or not),” Woodard said.
Grassel said that young people see far more advertising for alcohol on television, magazines and on the Internet. She added that the state rules were put in place by appointed board members, not elected officials.
“We have a number of unelected boards that get to make decisions that we at the local community level do not,” she said.
Council Member Ben Wick said it’s really a matter of fairness and that the sign ordinance should be uniform throughout the city.
“I don’t think we should make any rules that single out one particular industry,” he said.
Deputy Mayor Gary Schimmels concurred, adding, “I say we leave well enough alone.”.