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I just got back from a special meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), of which I am a member. The big topic of discussion lately has been the sign ordinance and how the current ordinance violates freedom of speech. The HPC, Planning Commission and City Council are all working to rewrite the ordinance in due haste, but with plenty of discussion, so that it is no longer in violation of people’s rights.

I’ve been on the HPC a little over a year and watching the process of city government, and being a part of it, is informative. There are so many ways to look at one issue. We have to be able to figure out how citizens may interpret ordinances, how difficult ordinances may be to enforce (if the city can’t enforce an ordinance, there’s no sense having it), and how to make ordinances fair to everyone.

The HPC only has jurisdiction over the historic district and can make recommendations regarding the district to the City Council, but the City Council doesn’t have to follow our recommendations. While that makes it sound like the HPC isn’t providing a useful function, that’s not the case. Those of us on the HPC were appointed by the mayor because of our interest and/or expertise in historic preservation, so the Council isn’t likely to reject our recommendations out-of-hand.

The HPC is interested in making sure that the historic district maintains its historic feel. Most of the buildings in our historic district were built between about 1890 and 1920, so we’ve got a distinctly Victorian feel to downtown. If the word “feel” seems mushy in this context, that’s because it is.

When it comes to questions of aesthetics, it’s hard to define what constitutes “Victorian.” Lots of people conjure Gibson girls and curly-cues and fancy italic writing and think that’s the definition of the Victorian era. But, if we look back at historic pictures of downtown from that time, most of the signs are plain and have block letters. Their simplicity actually looks pretty modern. Once a group of people have argued about what aesthetic is appropriate for an historic district, it quickly becomes obvious that style cannot be legislated without causing lots of headaches.  (We all have different ideas about what attracts us, which doesn’t help the matter.)

Aside from applying a specific style to an historic district, another struggle is that cities are organic, even if historic buildings seem permanent. How do we keep the buildings preserved while allowing building owners to adapt their uses to current needs? The sign ordinance is a part of this adaptation. The HPC’s portion of the sign ordinance currently does not allow for plastic or back-lit signs in the district, yet we have reached a point in time when back-lit and plastic signs are old enough as a technology to be considered historic.

The organic nature of cities is what makes them vibrant and interesting, but it also means that ordinances become outdated and need to be reworked. When that happens, it’s good to have passionate citizens willing to carefully examine and discuss these ordinances so that they keep up with the times.

(That’s my long-winded way of saying that today’s meeting was a good one.)