|The petitioner’s property is zoned Low Density Residential-2 (LDR2) Zoning District. The use of the property as a place of worship is classified as an Institutional Use, and allowed as a conditional use in the LDR2 Zoning District under the City’s Land Development Regulations of City Code, also referred to as the City’s “zoning regulations.” The City’s sign regulations are part of the Land Development Regulations.
The petitioner erected the existing monument sign on Hanson Boulevard in 2001 after obtaining a variance from the required setback from Hanson Boulevard right-of-way. During reconstruction of Hanson Boulevard at that time, additional right-of-way was taken and the previous ground sign was removed. Following completion of the roadway project, the church applied for the variance to locate its ground sign—the existing, 55.25 square-foot sign—eight feet from the right-of-way where the required setback was 18 feet. The variance was approved based upon trees obstructing the visibility of a sign at the required setback and the variance is to remain in effect only as long as the obstruction remains.
In May 2005, Faith Lutheran Church was denied a permit by City staff to erect a second ground sign along the Hanson Boulevard frontage. Upon appeal of this staff decision to City Council, the petitioner was issued a variance to construct the second ground sign—the cross that is located in the driveway median off Hanson Boulevard. City Code zoning regulations allow one ground sign per building for institutional uses located in residential zoning districts.
The church is proposing to remove the existing monument sign and replace it with a larger, 76 square-foot monument style ground sign located approximately 110 feet north of the current sign on the Hanson Boulevard frontage. The new monument sign is proposed to be 13 feet in height and setback 10 feet from the public street right-of-way. City Code sign regulations permit either a monument style ground sign or a pylon style ground sign of up to 100 square feet in area on the petitioner’s Hanson Boulevard frontage. A monument style ground sign is limited to ten feet in height and is permitted a minimum setback of ten feet from the right-of-way. A pylon style ground sign may be taller but is required to be set back at least 15 feet from the public street right-of-way.
The petitioner’s narrative included with their application is attached to this report. The narrative indicates a request for a setback variance to provide for a ten-foot setback in addition to the variance to increase the height of the sign. However, the proposed sign is a monument style ground sign and may be located at a setback of ten feet from the right-of-way line. No setback variance is needed.
In order for a variance to be granted, the Board must make the following findings of City Code Section 11-304.9(2), Standards for Approval for granting variances. A variance may be granted only after the following findings are made:
1. Finding: The variance is in harmony with the general purposes and intent of the ordinance from which the variance is requested.
The purpose and intent of the Sign Regulations is to:
(1) Regulate the number, location, size, type, illumination and other physical characteristics of signs within the City in order to promote the public health, safety, and welfare;
(2) Maintain, enhance and improve the aesthetic environment of the City by preventing visual clutter that is harmful to the appearance of the community;
(3) Improve the visual appearance of the City while providing for effective means of communication, consistent with constitutional guarantees and the City’s goals of public safety and aesthetics; and
(4) Provide for fair and consistent enforcement.
Regulating physical characteristics of signs and, specifically, allowing a reduced setback for shorter, monument style ground signs, was designed to enhance the physical and aesthetic environment by creating a more pedestrian scale and, in certain areas, to calm traffic. Granting a variance to allow a monument style ground sign of 13 feet in height is not consistent with the purpose and intent of the regulations. The petitioner can effectively communicate with the public by means of a sign limited to ten feet in height; there are locations along the property frontage the sign can be placed to be seen by vehicular and pedestrian traffic on Hanson Boulevard. The sign also could be constructed as proposed and placed at a minimum setback of 15 feet.
2. Finding: The variance is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
The Comprehensive Plan includes a policy to continue to enforce sign regulations that encourage high aesthetic quality. This goal can be furthered by ensuring adherence to land use regulations whenever possible.
3. Finding: The applicant demonstrates there are practical difficulties in complying with the ordinance from which the variance is sought. Practical difficulties include, but are not limited to, inadequate access to direct sunlight for solar energy systems. Economic considerations alone do not constitute practical difficulties. In determining this standard, all the following must be met:
a. Unless the variance is granted, the property cannot be used in a reasonable manner. If a property can be used reasonably without the granting of a variance, it can be used in a reasonable manner.
The petitioner is proposing to replace an existing ground sign that is visible from Hanson Boulevard. The electronic display area of the proposed sign will be nearly 30 percent larger and a foot or more higher above grade than the changeable copy area of the existing sign. The property contains more than 500 feet of frontage along Hanson Boulevard and the petitioner has indicated the proposed sign will be placed at the required setback in an open area between existing trees. The petitioner has not demonstrated that a sign—if limited to ten feet in height and placed in this or any other location along the frontage—would not be visible. The petitioner can maintain reasonable use of the property without the grant of a variance for sign height.
b. The variance requested must be the minimum to make reasonable use of the property.
The petitioner has not demonstrated that the variance requested is the minimum necessary to make reasonable use of the property. The petitioner has not demonstrated that a sign not more than ten feet in height would not be visible to traffic on Hanson Boulevard nor has the petitioner demonstrated that the proposed sign located at a greater setback would not be visible.
c. The plight of the applicant or landowner is due to circumstances unique to the property not created by the applicant or landowner.
The plight of the landowner is not unique to the property. The setback area on which the sign is to be located is relatively level; there is a slight slope down to the adjacent parking lot. The circumstances along Hanson Boulevard are not unique but are fairly typical of most arterial street boulevards. There is no need to increase the height of the sign in order to overcome grade or other site constraints.
d. The variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the locality.
The petitioner’s property is located on Hanson Boulevard, a Class A Minor arterial roadway, in an area that is predominantly residential in character with a small number of institutional and office uses interspersed between commercial nodes located at Coon Rapids and Northdale Boulevards. These institutional and office uses are subject to the same sign regulations as the petitioner. The signs on some of these properties predate the existing sign regulations, particularly those regulations governing monument style signs. In the petitioner’s narrative accompanying this application, and attached hereto, the petitioner specifically refers to a sign located on property immediately south of 111th Avenue from the petitioner’s property. The City is aware of this sign, has discovered that the permit was issued in error and is addressing the matter separate to this action. The sign, a monument sign approximately 13 feet in height, has altered the character of this street scape.
The application for variance requires the applicant submit a written narrative explaining how the variance request meets the following criteria: explain the undue hardship that exists based upon circumstances unique to the property, explain how the request allows the minimum improvement that would make possible the reasonable use of the property, explain how the request would not be detrimental to the neighborhood or the public welfare and explain how the variance would not grant a special privilege not common to other property in the same zoning district. The applicant’s narrative is attached.