Trio of West Side murals.

West St. Paul Considers Relaxing Sign Ordinance

Thanks to Clothesline Laundromat and Blue Sky Bookkeeping for their support.

North of Annapolis Street you’ll see multiple murals on St. Paul’s West Side. South of Annapolis in West St. Paul, not so much. But that could change as the City of West St. Paul considers a new sign ordinance that would allow more freedom of expression and public art.

What’s changing: While the ordinance edits stretch to 30 pages, the changes are relatively minor. Here are the big changes:

  • Yard signs: Changing from a limit of one yard sign to a limit of a total of 10 square feet of signs. (Math please: If the standard yard sign is 18×24 inches, you could have three signs.)
  • Fences: Signs will be allowed on fences, with limits.
  • Murals: Non-commercial murals will be allowed, covering up to 25% of a building’s total wall space (with pretty restrictive limits in residential zones).
  • House color: The color of your house has to match existing colors in the neighborhood.
  • More: Plenty of other minor tweaks, including a new definition of sign, content neutral language, allowing semi-transparent window signs, and more.

Real impact: The biggest change West St. Paul is likely to see is businesses embracing murals. Imagine Amore Coffee hosting a ‘Welcome to West St. Paul’ mural on its north wall or a mural on the south wall of Napa Auto Parts depicting West St. Paul resident and Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, who was born and raised near that site. Though it’s unlikely West St. Paul would see a flood of murals—even in cities where murals are allowed, large corporations tend to shy away from them.

Public input: These sign ordinance changes will first come before the Planning Commission on Tuesday, May 16 and then advance to City Council on May 22 for a first reading and June 12 for a final reading. The only required public hearing will be at the Planning Commission (though the mayor can choose to allow public comment at the City Council meetings).

Political reality: When these changes were proposed in April, the West St. Paul City Council seemed open and most were receptive to changes, though Mayor Dave Napier was skeptical (at the time, they were speaking generally and had not seen this specific draft).

Ordinance Specifics

While we’ve covered what will change with these proposed ordinances, there are a ton of details to be interpreted in this draft (that could be changed before it’s approved):

  • Location: The ordinance severely restricts where a residential mural can go. You can’t put a mural on a garage door and it “may not directly face adjacent residential structures.” The intention is that it has to face the street, not your neighbor. If you don’t have a wall that meets that requirement, the mural must be screened with an opaque, five-foot barrier (fence, plantings, etc.).
  • Building wall only: Murals are limited to the walls of a building only. Retaining walls, fences, and doors are not allowed. The mural also has to be painted “directly on a building wall,” which eliminates a common mural method where it’s painted on a board and the board attached to a wall.
  • Color: There’s language about “harmony of design and structure color shades” that not only limits mural colors but limits the color of your house. It specifically says colors must “draw from the range of color shades that already exist on the block or in the adjacent neighborhood.” So if there’s not a pink house in your neighborhood, you can’t have a pink house. And this applies to murals as well, which would severely limit the colors in a mural (e.g., no purple houses, no purple in a mural).
  • Fences: While signs are now allowed on fences, they can’t be painted on the fence, they can’t rise above the fence, they must face the street, and they count toward the 10 square feet limit.
  • Sculpture: The original ordinance definition of a sign included “sculptured matter,” which effectively prohibited sculpture in the city. While this definition is not addressed in the drafted changes, city staff said they will bring the definition in line with the new definition, including striking the sculpture language. However, city staff said sculpture would still not be allowed in the city (though it’s not clear what ordinance would prohibit it).
  • Paint: The definition of a mural specifically says it’s painted, which would eliminate other forms of murals, such as mosaics. The code also specifically lists the type of allowed paint—”oil-based alkyd enamel or polyurethane enamel, or newer 100 percent acrylic exterior paint”—which could eliminate some forms of mural art, such as stenciled spray paint. It’s not clear why its necessary to define the type of paint.
  • Flags: The definition of a flag is tweaked slightly to help differentiate flags (unrestricted) from banners (covered by sign ordinance). City staff said if it’s attached to a wall it’s a banner not a flag.
  • Non-commercial: The non-commercial limitation means a business could commission a mural featuring their services but not their name or logo. In other words, an auto shop could do a mural with a car, but not include their name or logo.

The Complications of Sign Ordinances

The debate over signs, public art, and freedom of expression can get emotional, but there are several legal guidelines that determine what the city can do:

  • Content neutral: The First Amendment does not allow the city to restrict the content of a sign or public art (with the exception of obscenity and pornography). In other words, the city can’t force a sign to be removed because neighbors don’t like the message. In April, Council Member Wendy Berry dismissed concerns about potentially negative signs: “As someone who is targeted by signs often, I’m not concerned about this. It’s just an opportunity to explain how other people have different points of view.”
  • Same rules: If the city is going to allow murals in business zones, they have to allow murals in residential zones. The rules can be different, but they can’t be allowed in one area and prohibited in another. (This is perhaps why these ordinances are complicated as they try to allow murals in business zones but restrict them heavily in residential zones.)
  • Election exemption: The city’s sign rules go out the window during an election when state law preempts local sign ordinances. That generally means late June until mid-November in even years is a free-for-all, and early August until mid-November in odd years.
  • Freedom: This debate is often met with the misguided sentiment that people should be able to do whatever they want with their own property. The reality is there are all kinds of limitations restricting what people can do with their own property. Signs are just another example.

Sign History in West St. Paul

While the wider Twin Cities are awash in public art, including sculptures and colorful murals, West St. Paul has been nearly void of public art until recently.

  • More art: The art park and the Charlton tunnel mural are two popular examples of expanded public art.
  • Less art: But there’s also the national headlines from 2021 when the city forced the removal of a Black Lives Matter mural painted on a fence (currently proposed changes would still not allow a mural painted on a fence). Anti-abortion signs likewise came down for violating the fence rule and limit on number of signs. Back in the late 1990s, the city forced the Spectacle Shoppe to curtail their mural plans.

Sign ordinance timeline:

We’ve noted some of the weird sign rules in West St. Paul and these changes will address a few of them.

May 17, 2023 Update: Planning Commission

Planning Commission considered the sign ordinance changes on May 16. They held a public hearing with three residents speaking (full disclosure: Including myself) and ultimately passed the ordinance changes unanimously with seven amendments.

Approved amendments:

  • Election exemption: City Attorney Pam Whitmore said the off-year school board elections do not count as a “special election” in the code and therefore do not have the standard election year exemption provided for in state law. That’s a flip from the previous city attorney’s ruling. Planning Commission unanimously approved an amendment for a sign exemption during school board elections.
  • Sign height: Temporary signs were limited to a height of 3 feet. An amendment to raise the height to five feet passed on a 5-2 vote (Maria Franzmeier and Liz Gillen voting no).
  • Renters: A concern about renters in multi-family housing not having the same opportunity for free speech as homeowners prompted an amendment asking City Council to consider a method to allow each unit in an apartment their own allotment of signage. It’s unclear how that would practically work, and likely would be limited by landlords anyway. It passed on a 4-3 vote (Fransmeier, Nathan Gallus, and Dan McPhillips voting no).
  • Paint: A measure expanding the allowed types of paint to include “other maintenance free material” passed unanimously.
  • Fences: A measure to initially strike the provision allowing signs on fences was changed to reduce the allowed square footage from 10 square feet to three square feet, and then passed on a 6-1 vote (Lance LaRue voted no).
  • Language: Two amendments to clean up language to be more consistent passed unanimously.

Failed amendments:

  • Large lots: An attempt to strike a rule that created expanded options for residential lots larger than one acre (aimed at schools and churches, but does include some large lots in the southwest corner of the city) failed on a 3-4 vote (Franzmeier, Gallus, McPhillips, and Lisa Stevens voted no).
  • Color restrictions: A move to strike the color shades rule for murals failed on a 3-4 vote (Franzmeier, Gallus, Gillen, and McPhillips voted no).
  • Reopenings: A proposal to give businesses more leeway with temporary signs for reopenings failed to get a second.

Other notes:

  • Sculpture: We previously reported sculpture would still be regulated, but the city attorney clarified: “Sculptures are not regulated at all.”
  • Absent: Planning Commissioners Alex Dahlquist and Tim Haubrich were absent.

The Planning Commission changes are ultimately recommendations and will be considered by City Council at the May 22 meeting.

May 23, 2023 Update: City Council

During the May 22 meeting, West St. Paul City Council debated and ultimately tabled the sign ordinance changes so they could have more time to consider the impact of allowing residential murals. Council was mostly supportive of the measures, though Mayor Dave Napier was opposed to the increase in temporary yard signs. The first reading will continue at the June 12 meeting.

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  1. Do you know how this compares to South Saint Paul’s yard sign/ mural/ flag ordinance, if any? since there is a line of properties that are technically SSP on the WSP side of 52 I am sure some confusion may arise from the proximity

    1. Hey Caroline: I don’t know what the rules are in South St. Paul. I imagine that happens wherever there’s a border (Delaware, Annapolis, 40 Acres), but yeah, that’s likely to happen there as well.

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