For years, Tulsans who have lost dogs, held yard sales or offered lawn services have flouted the law with impunity, littering public space and utility poles with temporary signs and posters. No more.
The Tulsa Beautification Foundation will donate $500,000 during the next four years to crack down on those sign bandits. The resulting program will also resurrect a city department to enforce regulations for business signs and sign-contractor operations.
"Our mission is pretty simple: make the city and region more beautiful," Tulsa Beautification Foundation President Phil Lakin said in a press release. "One small step in this important process is to remove illegally placed signs that have cluttered our medians and intersections for far too long."
The organization is also planning many other grants to make Tulsans more proud of their city, he added.
Tulsa recently hired eight sign inspectors with annual salaries of $32,000 each. The new employees will remove illegal signs from public property and work with businesses to ensure their signs meet city regulations, have the proper permits and are obtained from contractors with city licenses.
Tulsa previously employed sign inspectors, but the positions were eliminated because of $23 million in budget cuts in 2001. Since then, some sign contractors have chosen not to pay the $105 annual fee for a license and some signs have been erected without permits, according to the city.
City Councilor Bill Martinson said he embarked on a "minor crusade" in 2006 to eliminate illegal signs like those used in political campaigns, which he called "litter on a stick." The Tulsa Beautification Foundation shared his desire to clean up the signs then, Martinson said, but the agreement ultimately reached between the foundation and the city will allow Tulsa to improve both aesthetics and safety.
"[Sign permits] are not just there as a money-making deal for the city," he said. "They're important because many [signs] have electrical power to them and so forth. So the permits pay for inspections to make sure the signs are going to be safe.
"This is going to enable us to address the beautification and the safety issues at the same time."
City ordinance also restricts the size and placement of outdoor business signs, but since 2001, some signs have been placed illegally. The new inspectors may require some businesses to tear down or move signs to achieve compliance, Tulsa spokeswoman Kimberly MacLeod said.
In the sign program's first year, the Tulsa Beautification Foundation will pay four of the eight inspectors' salaries and pay for equipment such as vehicles and computers. The nonprofit's contribution will decrease each year, as the program becomes self-sustaining through collection of permit and license fees, MacLeod said.
The impetus for the revived program, though, was the proliferation of "stick signs," which have littered Tulsa roadways since sign inspectors lost their jobs in 2001, she said.
"What happened at that point is that sign litter got really out of control," MacLeod said. "It got really bad, and there wasn't anybody there to pick it up."
City crews have been used to clean up the litter, and Martinson organized a volunteer group of citizens in 2006 that removed illegal signs.
But a long-term solution was never found until the city sought a grant from the Tulsa Beautification Foundation last year. Administration officials said the program will not only reduce clutter on arterial streets but also improve driver safety.
"There was a time at 71st [Street] and Memorial [Drive] when there were just signs stacked one after another in the median, and the thought is that [the signs are] distracting from the road," she said. "They are also distracting for the businesses. All these signs are distracting you from the business you really want to go to."
Temporary signs are never allowed in the public right of way, which extends 12 feet from the curb. Temporary signs are allowed on private property, but owners must obtain permits, except for wall signs, small "For Rent" or "For Sale" signs and small projecting signs.
The cost of a sign permit ranges from $42 for a promotional business sign to $363 for an outdoor advertising sign, which includes zoning clearance and plan review. The sign contractor is instructed to obtain a permit before work begins.
Tulsa Inspections Manager Shannon Benge said all sign-owners must have permits for their signs in anticipation of the renewed enforcement. If a sign is found to be in violation of a city ordinance, the business will be notified and given an opportunity to obtain a permit or correct the violation. Tulsa notified all of the city's sign contractors in August that they should apply for permits before enforcement begins.
Violators of the sign ordinance can incur fines up to $500 and jail sentences as long as 90 days.
"Because of the work done over the past year with both the advisory board and the Beautification Foundation, we have a great program to implement," Mayor Kathy Taylor said. "The foundation's commitment to beautification throughout the city will help this program succeed."
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