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Pequot Lakes: Path to install Highway 371 billboards hits roadblocks

PinandLakes.com file photo

A seemingly simple act of installing two billboards on Highway 371 through Pequot Lakes isn't as easy as some thought thanks to the federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965.

What?

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act in October 1965 to limit billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising along America's interstate highways.

City staff ran across this and other potential hurdles while gathering information to change the city sign ordinance to allow highway billboards. The Minnesota Department of Transportation commissioner also has to sign off on the ordinance change.

The Pequot Lakes Planning and Zoning Commission addressed the topic as part of its Thursday, April 19, meeting, learning that the Highway Beautification Act confines outdoor advertising on trunk highways to commercial- or industrial-zoned property.

The city-owned property being considered for billboards in Pequot Lakes is zoned public so would need to be rezoned.

The consensus was for city staff to gather necessary information as quickly as possible, with plans for the commission to possibly meet Thursday, May 3, to review a potential sign ordinance change to allow the billboards.

Specifically, the commission talked about creating an overlay zone that would allow specific uses like billboards that aren't allowed in the underlying zone.

Otherwise, the commission could review the ordinance change at its Thursday, May 17, regular meeting, and hold a required public hearing at a special meeting Thursday, May 31.

That would pave the way for the city council to give final approval to the sign ordinance change at its regular meeting Tuesday, June 5.

This tentative timeline is dependent upon receiving the necessary information.

Mark Hallan, planning commission chair, was skeptical but hopeful, saying he doubted all information could be gathered so quickly, but it made sense to set the meetings just in case. Dawn Bittner, city zoning specialist, said the city attorney does understand the urgency and is researching the impact of federal regulations, how the city could implement an overlay district, who needs to receive information and how quickly information can come back to the city.

Background

Last fall, the council directed the planning and zoning commission to look into allowing billboards on the new four-lane stretch of highway that runs east of downtown Pequot Lakes. The commission recommended not to allow signs, and the council concurred.

Recently, some downtown businesses told the council business is down and signs are needed on the highway pointing motorists to downtown Pequot Lakes. Last month, the council responded by agreeing to amend the city's sign ordinance to allow a minimum of two locations of two-sided billboards on city-owned property along the highway. The property proposed for billboards is the city's row irrigation field on the east side of Highway 371, between the County State Aid Highway 11 and the Paul Bunyan State Trail overpasses.

Responding to the urgency to erect signs as soon as possible - hopefully in time for the summer tourist season - the council appointed a committee of business owners and council members to create a plan to present to the planning commission April 19.

That plan has three parts:

• Erect a static community sign on city property on the highway as soon as possible. This would welcome people to the community and could be done quickly.

• Develop a long-term plan to erect an additional electronic sign (allowing business advertising) on city property on the highway.

• Develop a long-term plan to erect a permanent static community sign at the intersection of Highway 371 and South Patriot Avenue (on what some call mesa or plateau of land).

Fundraising would occur to pay for the static community sign when firm cost estimates were obtained.

"We want to be transparent with the community and the council that we know what the committee brought forward - we know what council expectations are - but we can't hurry through it," Bittner told the planning commission, noting staff won't waste time, but will be sure to do it correctly.

The planning commission wants to consider the overlay zoning district rather than rezone the land in question to commercial or industrial because it fears private landowners would seek rezoning to install signs along the highway. Most city leaders don't want a lot of billboards along the highway.

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