City takes 1st step to OK downtown sign

HARLINGEN — A revised law might help a local attorney put up a 35-foot sign that’s now too tall to stand in the downtown area.

Amid heated debate Wednesday, city commissioners took a big step toward christening Ruben Peña’s sign, passing the first reading of an amendment to an ordinance that would allow bigger signage along West Harrison Avenue — where his office building stands — because it’s designated as a state highway.

“That amendment is simply to allow signage at a business that fronts a state roadway in the overlay district,” City Manager Dan Serna said before the commission meeting.

“That’s the sign that brought us to this point,” Serna added, referring to Peña’s sign.

Circumstances surrounding Peña’s sign, being installed outside his office building at 222 W. Harrison, led officials to propose changes to the ordinance.

Last year, city officials apparently mistakenly granted Peña a $150,000 permit to install his sign, which is too tall to comply with restrictions in the so-called “overlay district” which extends the Downtown Improvement District’s strict regulations to the La Placita area.

During the meeting, Serna said an official granted the permit because Peña’s office building wasn’t in the downtown district.

However, he said, the building stood within the overlay district, over which the Downtown Improvement District’s strict restrictions extend.

“That sign looks like a billboard,” Commissioner Victor Leal said during the meeting.

Advertising restrictions

Peña has said plans for his sign hovering over two-story rooftops included advertising two of his businesses.

During the meeting, Leal said he didn’t want other businesses in Peña’s building to use the sign to advertise.

“I want to be clear that that sign can only be used to promote that business,” Leal said.

Serna said the city’s regulations will restrict Peña’s advertising to his business at the sign’s site.

“It’s still an on-premise sign — it can only advertise that particular business,” Serna said before the meeting. “It can only advertise the business where the sign sits. It can’t advertise another business.”

Proposed regulations

The proposed regulations would comply with the city’s current laws governing signage sizes within parts of the city outside the stricter downtown and overlay areas, Xaxier Cervantes, the city’s planning and zoning director, wrote in an executive summary presented to commissioners.

Currently, regulations require “the total area of all signs on any building face shall not exceed the amount of linear frontage facing the street (measured in feet) on which the building is addressed, multiplied by 1.5,” Cervantes wrote in his executive summary.

“The proposed ordinance would increase the maximum allowable signage for only the properties fronting a state highway (Harrison Street) to 3 square feet per linear foot of building facing a street, instead of the 1.5 square feet per linear square foot of building facing the street.”

Original plan pulled

Last month, city officials scraped a plan to remove West Harrison and Jackson Avenues, from the railroad tracks to F Street, from the La Placita overlay district’s boundaries just to let Peña put up his sign.

At the time, Cervantes said residents were concerned lifting the overlay district’s protective boundaries would threaten the area’s architecture while opening the doors to adult businesses such as tattoo parlors and smoke shops.