On Monday the Council went back to Mission Viejo’s roots to find a vision for the future of commercial signage. After midnight, while the bedroom community slept, the City Council pulled the plug on Kaleidoscope’s plan for electronic billboards. The Council voted not to amend the City’s sign code on a surprising 4-1 vote.
The successful motion by Cathy Schlicht and Mayor Rhonda Reardon ends City Staff discussions with K-Scope for creating a special sign district at the hapless retail center, which remains 30% vacant after two decades and multiple owners. The most recent landlord, an East Coast investment group, purchased it out of bankruptcy a couple years ago.
The tone for the issue was set by Bob Breton, MV’s first Planning Commission Chairman in 1989. Breton served on the MV formation committee in the 70′s and 80′s and was instrumental in stitching together the Mission Viejo Company’s original sign strategy and a few County codes. MV was built and operated as an unincorporated community by the MV Co. from the 1960′s until 1988 when it formed its own government.
Breton’s oratorical description of the history and genius of MV’s original commercial sign policy coalesced the Council’s understanding of MV’s unique and illustrious aesthetic status among suburban communities nationwide. He cited as examples the Community’s rejection of pole-mounted Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets and towering yellow arches at MacDonald’s, noting MV has been the leader in setting visual standards for South OC:
This is a defining watershed moment for our City. I must say this [sign] issue, if not treated correctly, could rip apart the very fabric which makes Mission Viejo unique and sets us apart from other communities. This matter tests our resolve to protect and maintain the qualify of life which we cherish here, which makes us different by design, and which neighboring communities try to emulate.
Breton has been controversial over the years on issues like redevelopment, taxpayer subsidies, excessive spending and financial reserves. And true to political form, he later in the meeting tried to split the baby and pacify the wishes of those supporting Kaleidoscope’s proposal. Nevertheless, he was on his ‘A’ game defending the overall sign code. [Breton Audio]
The most controversial element by K-Scope was for ‘offsite’ advertising, selling billboard ads for products or entities not located at Kaleidoscope. Mayor Reardon tagged the issue as the “linchpin” of the lobbying effort, because it would be the greatest revenue generator for the landlord. K-Scope’s spokesperson refused to back away from that feature, making it seem larger ads for K-Scope merchants may have been a secondary consideration. Offsite ads typically feature beverage companies, national entities, and items featured in expensive TV ads.
Frank Ury was the sole vote in favor of creating a special sign district exclusively for K-Scope. But Trish Kelley pointed out that many retail centers would quickly line up demanding equal treatment if Kaleidoscope was successful. Judy Bullock, an 18-year resident and public relations consultant for the Shops of Mission Viejo and other regional centers, promised the Shops would quickly be in front of the Council for similar privileges, calling K-Scope’s plan a “Pandora’s Box.” She opposed additional signage.
It was an early groundswell of opposition by residents that ultimately carried the day against the commercial pleadings from the Chamber of Commerce. Even Councilman Dave Leckness, a Chamber mover and shaker, saw the voters’ handwriting on the wall. Kelley surmised current public opposition would be just be the “tip of the iceberg” if large or electronic signs were approved for Kaleidoscope.
Kaleidoscope may still apply for sign exceptions within the discretion of current City Code, as it has in the past, but that won’t include digital billboards, offisite ads or massive signs.
At the same meeting the Council decided to go back-to-the-future on another sign code issue. Last summer it significantly increased the maximum size for real estate signs which advertise property for sale, lease or rental. At an upcoming meeting it will decide whether to repeal that decision and return to the original code specifications.