Atascadero kicks off campaign to clean up unsightly signs

Several businesses along Atascadero's El Camino Real have sandwich-board signs on the sidewalk in violation of the city's sign ordinance.
Several businesses along Atascadero's El Camino Real have sandwich-board signs on the sidewalk in violation of the city's sign ordinance. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Guillermo Gonzalez looked concerned Thursday as he motioned toward his storefront at the back of a small shopping center in Atascadero and explained why he strung a banner advertising his restaurant’s drink specials across the bushes outside.

“I just want people to know we’re here,” the owner of The Taco Stand said in Spanish.

With that simple sentiment, Gonzalez echoed what numerous business owners would tell the Atascadero city staff, which has recently been reaching out to shops for the city’s new Improve Atascadero Signage campaign.

Last week, city staff kicked off the program by walking El Camino Real and approaching businesses with several goals in mind: Spot noncompliant signage, inventory it, give businesses 30 days to remove it and meet with shop owners to find solutions.

Also, starting this month, the city has slashed sign fees for 18 months to help encourage businesses to install permanent signs.

“The aim is to clean up the El Camino Real corridor because there are too many signs — and it’s an economic development issue and it’s a tourism issue,” city planner Alfredo Castillo said. “… When (it’s) so many signs, it really begins to have this visual clutter.”

The city’s campaign was born from the Atascadero Chamber of Commerce’s Business Walk in the fall, when some business owners expressed confusion over the city’s sign laws. The laws have become a growing issue in the past two years as the city received complaints about the misuse of signs.

While the sign laws aren’t new, this is the first time Atascadero has taken a proactive approach to enforce them citywide rather than acting off individual complaints, Castillo said.

The city’s campaign targets various types of temporary signage that businesses are either misusing or can’t have at all, such as sandwich boards on the sidewalk, rectangular signs staked in the dirt, banners stretched across fences and brightly colored vertical feather signs billowing in the wind.

“What the meat and heart of the issue (is), these businesses are really just trying to do what they think is best for them, and that’s just telling people where they’re at,” Castillo said. “We don’t want to see vacant spaces in our community because businesses weren’t seen, so we’re trying to help them.”

City outreach

The Tribune shadowed their efforts Thursday afternoon. By Tuesday, the city had visited about 97 businesses on and around El Camino Real from just south of Santa Rosa Road to Rosario Avenue, Castillo said. As city staff members reach more businesses, Castillo expected that they will have visited 250 by the end of the week.

The Taco Stand, on the southern end of town at 9965 El Camino Real, was one of the first locations Castillo visited.

Next door, the Golf and More shop has a banner tied to a tree and a light post facing El Bordo Avenue, a side street to Chalk Mountain Golf Course. On Thursday, owner George Dodge was angry about receiving a visit from the city. Later, though, he told The Tribune that he was frustrated because when he approached the city four years ago, he was told his signage was OK, and now the city is telling him it isn’t.

“I’m not upset with them coming around, though I think they’re stretching the distance a little bit since they’re focused on the core,” Dodge said. “As far as the sign policy goes, I’d like to see the town improve, too.”

Farther north, at 8665 El Camino Real in the shopping center formerly anchored by Spencer’s Fresh Markets, four sandwich boards and one similarly sized metal sign lined the sidewalk facing the main street.

Part of the issue there, Castillo said, is that sandwich boards are a city liability because they pose risks to pedestrians and cyclists, and they interfere with disability access on city sidewalks.

On the southwest side of that shopping center, quilting and fabric store Sew Fun has operated at the same location for 19 years.

While owner Lynn Barksdale doesn’t use a sandwich board, she said she feels for the businesses that do, adding that the signs have been a fixture for the past six or seven years.

“I just think right now Atascadero businesses are struggling to survive, and it’s hard to get business here,” she said.

One of her customers, Santa Margarita resident Ruth Donati, said she isn’t annoyed by the sandwich boards. “(Those signs) catch your eye and you say, ‘Oh, yeah. That place. I remember.’ And that might help,” Donati said.

Compliance efforts, which could include future violation fees as well as economic development tools to help businesses, may be discussed at a future council meeting, likely in midsummer.