Ventura Council Approves Auto Center Plan and Big Freeway Sign During July 24 Meeting

By Kevin Harris

The Ventura City Council approved general, and amended-specific plans, allowing improvements to its Auto Center during Monday night’s meeting. The improvements include a highly-debated, larger flashing freeway sign – all as part of the city’s broader Economic Development Strategy Focus Area 1.  

The Auto Center Specific Plan includes the following key components:

  • Widen LeLand St./Auto Center Dr. & bring some overhead utilities underground
  • Prohibit used car dealerships (with certain limitations)
  • Revised sign regulations/New sign agreement 

The proposed new sign regulations includes graffiti removal within 72 hours of city staff notifying the sign owner, Hofer Properties (known as “applicant” throughout the presentation), while the proposed sign agreement includes guaranteed minimum percentages of sign usage for public service messages, city-sponsored events and public safety announcements along with the Auto Center and its dealers.

The Presentation

Officially, the Auto Center Specific Plan was Item 8, a Public Hearing, during the July 24 meeting. It was presented by Ventura Community Development Director, Jeffrey Lambert, with help, and answers questioned, from applicant representative Neil Maguire. Based on audience attendance and time given to the issue, it was clearly the primary issue of the evening. 

Neil Maguire

It was explained, and shown through slides and video, that Ventura’s Auto Center, which currently has 10 auto dealerships (soon to be 11), does not have the freeway presence or visibility of other local auto centers, such as Oxnard’s – in large part due to Ventura’s relatively small signage. The auto center area also suffers from visual blight and a need for modernization, to facilitate beautification and enhanced land use – the latter to allow for more dealerships.

But the main event of the meeting, and of the Auto Center issue specifically, was the proposed large, flashing LED sign to promote the auto center and its dealers, as well as the City of Ventura itself. Some of the concerns included the sign’s brightness, affect on local residences and freeway safety issues. 

Following the formal presentation, some council members addressed staff and reps with questions or statements. Council Member Mike Tracy asked Neil Maguire about any demonstrated benefits of enhanced signage. “Do you have any data on increases in automobile sales in centers where they’ve gone to this kind of billboard signage?” 

According to Maguire, the closest local example to what they’re proposing in Ventura is in Huntington Beach, where they approved such signage several years ago. Their view at that auto center is that they increased auto sales by about 12 percent. 

Council Member Tracy also asked about the sign’s hours of operation. According to Maguire, while there is no official mandate in the Sign Agreement, the industry standard for sign operation is to turn it off from midnight – 5 a.m., while running it 24-hours per day on Christmas and other high profile holidays. 

Council Member Christy Weir confirmed that the city will not pay any of the sign’s cost – approximately $2 -$3 million, which will be paid by the owner, who will then sell ad time to the Auto Center and dealerships (and the city) at market rates. 

Council Member Matt Levere discussed some of the things he liked about the new agreement, including moving the utilities underground at the Auto Center, along with the enhanced landscaping called for in the contract, among other things. “One of the things I like about this plan is the environmental impact of the new LED lights verses the old incandescent lights on the old sign,” he said. 

Public Speakers

Ventura’s Council Chambers were packed with an “industry audience” in support of the new Auto Center Plan, plus a couple who had some concerns about it. Many who showed up spoke during the designated time. Here is a sampling.  

  • Jeff Sukay: President, Ventura County Dealers Association. Mr. Sukay showed up with his “posey,” and his large group of supporting employees in the audience. After he spoke in support of the Specific Plan, Mayor Nasarenko had to remind his supporters in the audience to refrain from applauding after each speaker. 

Jeff Sukay

  • Cameron Getchie: President, Ventura County Police Officers Association. Supports the Specific Plan. “We all know that the Auto Center is the largest sales tax generator in Ventura. By improving the Auto Center, we are in turn, boosting the city’s general fund.” 
  • Michael Sullivan: 40-year Ventura resident. Said he supports the Specific Plan, but is against the new LED sign. “I think it sets a bad precedent.” He said he’s also concerned with the safety aspects of having a big, flashing sign with messages on freeway traffic. 
  • Kathy Bremmer: Long time resident, environmental attorney. “I have no issue whatsoever with improvements at the auto mall… I just do not see an 82-foot-tall, 63-foot-wide, flashing LED as an improvement, nor do I see it as a charming attribute for our community,” she said (sign specifics have not been agreed upon yet). She also said she believes that allowing the new sign will open the door to more similar signs in the future, creating visual blight, and suggested dealers use the money instead for an enhanced online presence. 

   “People shop on the internet today. They look, they compare prices, they look at Yelp    

   reviews, see how people like the dealerships. They don’t drive up the freeway and 

   stop at the biggest sign,” she added. 

Kathy Bremmer

Staff & Council Respond

After the Public Comments period ended, applicant rep Neil Maguire responded to one of the speaker’s concerns. In reference to Michael Sullivan’s comment about safety risks of the freeway sign… “We are not allowed to have any rolling text, moving text, animation. Anything that would be considered a distraction. That’s a requirement that we have to abide by,” he said. 

Council Member Tracy followed with a prepared speech, where he pointed out that the new freeway sign will be in a commercial area of the city, and will not detract from the look or feel of it. “This is an area where reasonable people would expect to see a sign like the one that is being proposed.” 

Tracy then recommended to adopt the Resolution (Public Hearing, Item 8, A-D), but with several stated changes to the amended plan. A sampling of his changes include giving the Community Development Director the authority to approve most new signage, along with his authority to deviate from land use regulations (for signs); add another limitation to the sign contract that will disallow prescription medications (except OTC meds) from being advertised; and mandating sign hours of operation to shut down from midnight to 5 a.m. except for high traffic holidays. 

Mr. Maguire, as the applicant rep., accepted Tracy’s changes. But before the vote, Council Member Weir explained that, while she supports the Specific Plan in general, she can not support the motion, because she opposes the proposed freeway sign. Her concerns are mostly about how the large, bright lights might affect some local residents. The vote passed, 6-1, at which point nearly the entire audience made a dash for the exits. 

The next City Council Meeting will be Monday, August 7, 2017. 

You can watch this and other past meetings by going to www.cityofventura.ca.gov, then clicking on the “Videos” button, and going to the “available archives” section, where the video can be watched or downloaded. 

 

Kevin Harris

Kevin Harris is a reporter, editor and journalist, previous President of Cal State Northridge’s Society of Professional Journalists having worked for the LA Times and Newhall Signal. He is now also a Realtor and videographer, and lives with his two children in Thousand Oaks. 


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