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Signs of Change: Couple Goes to City Hall for Loosening of Advertising Restrictions

Business owners say no one told them their expensive electronic sign could change only once a day.

Andy and Jan Rebholz just wanted their business to stand out a bit.

Their repair business, Bluemound Automotive, at 6000 Blue Mound Rd., is surrounded by storefronts — including direct competitors — that stand in Milwaukee, which has much looser requirements for business signs than does Wauwatosa.

They presented a design that was in keeping with Wauwatosa's size and height restrictions and that, at considerable cost, would also include a lighted electronic screen that could be programmed to change messages.

"It took, I think, a year to get the permit," Jan Rebholz said. "It seemed like an endless process."

But get a permit they did, the sign was installed, and finally the couple were able to begin presenting messages to potential customers about brake job specials, oil change offers, battery deals and the like.

"The city inspector was here, like, the next day," Andy said. "He told us you can only change the message once every 24 hours."

Throughout the whole permit process, Jan and Andy said, even though everyone on city staff and boards knew their sign was electronic and programmable — no one told them of that restriction.

"The message seems stale if it changes just once a day," Andy said.

The Rebholzes decided to take their cause back to City Hall and ask for a revision of the sign ordinance, and on Tuesday night, they drew one step closer to their goal.

Paulette Enders, interim community development director, offered a recommedation to the Community Development Committee for a 90-day trial period for existing "changeable copy" signs to be allowed to switch messages every hour.

After lengthy debate and an amendment from Ald. Linda Nikcevich to allow for message changes every 10 minutes, the measure squeaked by on a 4-3 vote and will go to the Common Council next week.

'A Billion-Dollar Business'?

There are 11 changeable signs operating in Wauwatosa, Enders said. Four of those are Walgreens signs, and one belongs to The Salvation Army headquarters — offering up mostly brief blessings and prayers.

No new changeable signs would be allowed during the trial period, according to the resolution.

Wauwatosa resident Clinton Gallagher is a software programmer who is trying to create a business offering software services for state-of-the-art digital signs.

"This represents a billion-dollar market throughout the metro area," he said in an interview – although he had no independent verification of that figure. "You can call them electronic signs, but they're really digital signs – LED signs that display a TV image.

"Wauwatosa's signage laws are 25 years old," Gallagher said. "They're not contemporary with the way signage has evolved."

That, however, is exactly what had a number of aldermen worried: That advances in sign technology, if allowed to flourish unrestricted, could proliferate and make Wauwatosa's business corridors flashing strips of distracting lights and messages.

What Gallagher calls "a trampling of our property rights," city staff considers a potential aesthetic and traffic safety nightmare.

For the Rebholzes, it isn't about wanting to flash sensational messages constantly. They said they would have been happy with the once-an-hour restriction but will probably take advantage of the 10-minute rule offered during the trial period — if it passes the full council.

Andy Rebholz said they were driving one day and saw a flashing message sign at a gas station on the Brookfield side of North 124th Street and they were appalled.

"I said, 'Look at that, isn't that awful?'" Andy said. "I said, 'I can't believe Brookfield allows that.'

"That isn't what we want. If a sign is changing only every 10 minutes, or even every minute or three minutes or whatever, you're only going to see one message as you drive by."

The bottom line for them: "We've put a lot of money into this sign," Jan said, "and we'd like to use it."

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