A Des Moines junior-high school’s been told a mural painted by students is breaking the city ordinance on advertising. Des Moines Community Development Director Larry Hulse explains the school’s old sign was replaced with a new one, but the old blank sign remained. Students painted it with colorful pictures and added the name of the school. With the school’s new sign, and an ordinance that allows only one, that makes it two. So he says the city’s let the school know what the rule says, to see what it plans to do about having more signs than the zoning ordinance allows. The rule lays out what can be done in different parts of town, he explains. Like most cities, there are rules for how big signs can be, how close they can be to the street, and just what makes a big thing a “sign.” The kids’ mural itself isn’t a problem, but having the school’s name on it makes the surface a sign, as it carries information stating what is at that location — the Meredith Middle School. Hulse says the school has several options, like going to the local Board of Variance. The school district could ask for a variance in that one-sign limit at that location, ask the city council to change zoning rules for signs owned by public schools, or paint over the words and keep their mural where it is. He says over time, changes to the rules make them long and complex, and it’s hard work keeping them up to date. “It’s very hard to write a zoning ordinance that covers every unique situation in the city,” Hulse says. That’s exactly why there is a board, so members can consider whether the rule is fair or causes somebody hardship, and have the power to grant variances from the rules. Hulse praised the people who serve on boards to ensure the ordinances are administered fairly.
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