Electronic High School signs

Council members opted not to amend the city's sign ordinance on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014 to allow for electronic reader board signs larger than 4 square feet at two Foothill Boulevard private institutions, St. Francis High and Flintridge Preparatory schools. (File photo)

As La Cañada moves closer to changing its zoning ordinance to allow St. Francis and Flintridge Preparatory schools to display electronic signboards on Foothill Boulevard, one council member warned about the backlash the allowance could unleash.

“This is the antithesis to what we have tried over all these years to project as the look and feel of our community,” said Councilwoman Laura Olhasso, who voted against the signs two years ago and reaffirmed her position at Monday’s Council meeting. “I’m frankly appalled that you guys are all supportive of this.”

Olhasso’s protest followed a discussion, in which Councilman Dave Spence, Mayor Pro Tem Don Voss and Mayor Mike Davitt announced some level of support for the rule change.

Councilman Jon Curtis was not present at Monday’s meeting, leading to a 3-1 vote directing staff to prepare a draft ordinance incorporating recommendations for sign allowances for the two schools only.

“I think you have a direction to go in,” Davitt told Chris Gjolme, the city planner who presented Monday’s report.

The matter was brought to the Council’s attention in July 2012, when St. Francis officials expressed their desire to replace their analog signboard with a digital display larger in area than the 4-square-foot maximum imposed by the city’s sign ordinance.

At that time, City Council had two options — approve a variance through the Planning Commission or consider amending the ordinance to allow bigger message centers on qualifying properties. Members chose the latter, and a City Council/Commission subcommittee was formed in fall 2013 to explore that option alongside the Planning Commission and the Design Commission.

When all the groups weighed in, however, each had made a different determination.

The Design Commission passed a resolution recommending against a code change, but created development standards the Council might follow if it wished to proceed with the change, Gjolme said Monday.

The Planning Commission was split, with some commissioners making their approval conditional on geographic and functional limitations, such as the number of messages that could be displayed in a 24-hour period and an operational curfew.

Still another member felt an allowance to be in conflict with the Planning Commission’s own mission statement “to maintain and preserve the City’s unique semi-rural hillside and character,” according to a city report.

The subcommittee, consisting in part of Davitt and Curtis, ultimately determined that only school properties of more than three acres on Foothill Boulevard, east of the 210 Freeway with enrollments exceeding 400 students should be eligible for the electronic signs.

Council members Monday discussed what restrictions might be made to the design and display of the hypothetical signs to ensure they neither annoyed nor distracted drivers.

Voss asked if the panel could restrict what kinds of messages the schools displayed, and was told by Deputy City Attorney Adrian Guerra that the Council couldn’t impinge on the schools’ First Amendment rights to free speech.

“This started out as something simple…and it got to be pretty complicated, maybe more complicated than it needed to be,” Voss said before the vote.

Olhasso expressed her concern the signs, once erected, would not pass public muster.

“When the community learns of this and these things are built, they’re going to say, ‘Why didn’t you disapprove of these things?’” Olhasso warned at the end of the discussion. “And I might try to stir the pot — so I’m just telling you now.”

“I don’t appreciate the comment about a threat,” Davitt said before moving on to the vote. “I don’t think it’s appropriate here.”

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Follow Sara Cardine on Twitter: @SaraCardine.

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