Council split on electric signs

St. Francis High School wants to replace its signboard with a new electronic model — a common sight at high schools in the region — but fitting the request into local regulations has the La Cañada Flintridge City Council divided.

The council decided Monday to launch an effort to rewrite city law to OK St. Francis' so-called e-reader board, despite concerns from two council members that allowing signs with a scrolling display of multicolored words and images might change the face of the city.

“I haven't seen an electronic reader board I like, ever,” said Councilwoman Laura Olhasso. “I think they're in direct opposition with what the city has been trying to do with the look and feel of Foothill Boulevard and the community.”

Current city law bans digital reader boards larger than 4 square feet, while the smallest of the boards St. Francis proposes is roughly 3 feet by 51/2 feet. According to a staff report, the standards for granting a variance are so strict that a proposal such as St. Francis' would have no chance of meeting them.

Councilman Mike Davitt said he thought the city could craft an ordinance that would allow private institutions like St. Francis to install the same type of signs already seen on campus at La Cañada High School — which was allowed to install its reader board because it is a public institution — and La Salle High School in Pasadena.

“I think there's an opportunity where we can properly regulate [the signs] and allow these properties to have a much more efficient and attractive message,” Davitt said.

Mayor Steve Del Guercio and Councilman Don Voss joined Davitt in recommending that staff work on putting together a new ordinance. Olhasso and Councilman Dave Spence were opposed.

City Planner Chris Gjolme said design and planning commissioners who in March recommended turning down St. Francis were worried that changing the law might open a “Pandora's box” of garish electronic signs in the city.

Andrew Burghdorf, a spokesman for St. Francis, assured the council that the sign will fit in with the school's overall design and will not be gaudy.

The goal of a sign that can convey a rotating series of messages about school activities, he said, is “to ensure that our community is aware of everything that's going on — a scrolling sign board is extremely efficient for that.

“La Cañada High School has a very well-done scrolling sign,” Burghdorf said. “Perhaps we could tailor [rules that allow] something like that for private schools in the area. We're just trying to step into the modern technology world.”

City Planner Fred Buss said the city hasn't received any complaint about La Cañada High School's electronic display.

Voss said that once staff researches other sign board examples and laws in the region, the council will get a handle on whether and how to allow them in the city.

“I'd like to see us play around with this a bit,” he said.

“Take some of these concepts and fashion an extremely limited ordinance where we don't open Pandora's box, just a little drawer where we maintain control.”

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