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Mill Creek considering business friendly sign code revisions

City of Mill Creek considering business friendly sign code changes
Gateway Shopping Center freestanding sign

The City of Mill Creek has begun a process to update its sign code to help local businesses reach potential customers. Mill Creek’s Community Development Director, Tom Rogers, is spearheading an effort to make the sign code more business friendly while preserving the City’s beauty.

Rogers kicked off the process with a recent presentation to the Mill Creek Business Association. He announced the City would hold an open house on July 19th to collect ideas for potential sign code amendments and outlined the change process. Interim City Manager, Tom Gathmann, made a similar presentation to the Mill Creek Town Center Business Association's Board of Directors.

The City of Mill Creek will soon send out a direct mail piece describing the sign code change process. All storefront business in the City and the individuals on the community mailing list from the Strategic Planning process will receive this mailer.

The direct mail says, “The City would like to hear from both the residents and the business community on their ideas for potential code amendments. To provide a forum to receive public comments, the Planning Commission will be hosting an Open House on Thursday, July 19.”

Mill Creek’s sign code was designed to minimize visual clutter. As a result it is more restrictive than unincorporated Snohomish County’s sign code and neighboring cities’ sign codes.

Rogers believes that the sign code could be changed in two areas as follows:

  1. Allow larger freestanding signs for commercial properties, which would enable the display of the center’s name plus one or more tenants. According to Rogers, a number of city councilmembers have requested this change.
  2. Standardize the building (wall) sign regulations regarding maximum area calculations to make them uniform throughout the City. Currently, there are two separate calculation methods for building signs; one used in the Mill Creek Town Center, and one for the rest of the City. Rogers wants to be able to apply the Mill Creek Town Center regulations citywide.

Councilmember Terry Ryan expressed his support for even more sign code revisions at the June 5th City Council meeting, “I think the council is open to everything.” He went on to relate that in his job as a commercial real estate broker he has seen commercial tenants avoid Mill Creek because of its sign code, “At the Gateway Center we lost three national tenants that specifically would not go in there because of the signage. Because it is so archaic they wouldn’t even consider it. We need to open our eyes. The argument we have always gotten from staff is that we don’t want to be like Lynnwood. If Lynnwood is here and we are there, maybe going a third of the way isn’t so bad.”

Rogers responded by saying that good signs cost a lot and businesses are not always willing to make the investment, “One of the things that the council did many years ago for the Gateway Shopping Center was to allow double signage on buildings that face a parking lot and also face a highway where you can’t see their front door from the road. A lot of those business haven’t taken advantage of those programs which is very surprising especially at the Gateway Center… Even if we change the rules for these signs, it requires an investment by the property owner. The property owner has to be convinced that it is worth spending the money.”

Ryan was surprised to learn that Mill Creek’s current sign code allows illuminated signs on the Bothell-Everett Highway side of some Gateway Center businesses. He says the “new normal” of this economy has changed things such that property owners are willing to make investments to fill up their commercial property.

Rogers doesn’t believe Mill Creek should look like Lynnwood, “We don’t want to have every business in the shopping center have their own huge free-standing sign, the Lynnwood example. We’re looking at maybe one sign at the frontage and allowing more than one tenant to be on that.”

A former Mill Creek Planning Commission Vice Chair, Meg Winch, sent an email to the Mill Creek City Council just before their June 5th meeting expressing her opinions regarding Mill Creek’s sign code. She believes that business practices contribute more to success than signs, “In my opinion, businesses are not harmed by the current sign code, but rather by business hours and practices not conducive to running a successful business in a working community like ours.  Most Mill Creek small businesses close early (by 6:00pm), and many are not open on Sundays. In a community where many of us who do shop and eat out are working until after 6:00pm to support our families, we often cannot shop in Mill Creek – not because the stores don’t have signs, but because they are not open when we need them to be… Many times, I’ve finished work at 7:00, met my husband for dinner in Mill Creek, and found no place to run the errands (like buying gifts, etc.) that are still open beyond the ‘big box’ or grocery stores.”

“In today’s business climate, it’s indeed harder to make a living.  But, instead of more signs that degrade the look of our community, more of us need to be creative in how we operate and how we serve our customers.”

Winch holds Mill Creek’s standards in high regard, “Mill Creek is attractive to live in and do business in because of its standards.  We need only to look at our neighbors to the North (Everett) to the South (unincorporated Snohomish County), and to the West (Lynnwood) to see what loosened sign code regulations look like.  As someone who has lived in Mill Creek since 1986, I can still tell the moment I drive into our City. It’s the one committed to responsible growth, green trees, and a balanced sign code.  I hope that continues.”

At the June 5th City Council meeting, a number of councilmembers expressed their desire to hear Mill Creek business owners’ ideas for potential sign code changes.

  • Councilmember Donna Michelson said, “We do need to readdress the sign codes. Because the business owners are the ones that have to open their doors and pay their rent, and I think their opinion is a qualifier that goes to the top of the list… I would like to have the business owners interject what they think is right and what they think is wrong with our sign code.”
  • Councilmember Mark Harmsworth wants to be sure the business owners and citizens are involved early in the process so that their ideas can affect the outcome.
  • Councilmember Kathy Nielson thinks there should be consistency in sign codes. She thinks the City should reach out to stakeholders and interested parties should come to an informal environment to discuss options.