Hill City Cafe gets to keep its sign

Gray Hughes

The Hill City Common Council met Monday. Its only scheduled business item was to discuss a nonconforming electronic sign at the Hill City Cafe.

The sign is an electronic reader board sign that was allowed in the Central Business District when it was first put up in 2009.

The discussion was an appeal of a Hill City Planning and Zoning decision that ended in a 2-2 tie meaning the sign must be removed as condition of a building permit for the Cafe.

Brett McMacken, city administrator for Hill City, started off the discussion by giving a history of the sign.

The sign, he said, was erected in 2009. Using Google Maps, he showed the history of the sign and when it had been turned on in the past. In 2011, he said the sign appeared to be functional, according to Google Maps Street View.

“In 2014, the Hill City Planning and Zoning Commission passed a new sign ordinance that made changes to to the Central Business District,” McMacken said. In that code update, electronic signs of all types were banned in the Central Business District; however, the cafe’s sign was grandfathered into compliance.

Using Google Maps Street View, McMacken showed that in 2013 the sign was not turned on. Letters were sent to the Cafe and owner Patty Houska to ask that the sign either be turned on or removed. According to records, those letters were sent in October 2018, Dec. 6, 2019 and Dec. 17,  2019.

The sign, he said, remained off until late in 2019, when it was turned on. Prior to that, the city considered the sign to be an abandoned sign because — from what the city could tell — it had not been turned on for several years.

The council members, though, were upset with the entire process by which Houska was notified her sign was nonconforming.

“There are so many problems with what the city has done,” said alderman Bill Miner.

Miner pointed to the 2018 letter, which did not, in his opinion, provide a clear timeline for sign removal.

Further, pointing to the portion of the Hill City Municipal Code dealing with abandoned signs that references South Dakota Codified Law, the sign ordinance deals with abandoned highway signs.

Houska, too, said her dealings with Dani Schade, development service coordinator for Hill City, who was not present at the meeting, were unpleasant and that she did not receive some of the letters sent by Schade. Included in the packet was proof that the Dec. 6 letter was returned to sender.

“The city is harassing me,” Houska said. “I’m just running my business, trying to make a living, and the city is harrassing me.”

Further, it was pointed out that the city had no physical proof that the sign had been turned off all the time from 2013-19.

While Houska had a large contingency of people present to support her, there were others in the audience who wanted the sign to be taken down.

Connie Wolters, a member of the planning and zoning commission who was present via telephone, said while the Cafe does a lot of good for the city both monetarily and philanthropically, she is afraid if the sign is allowed it would set a precedence of allowing other electronic signs in the central business district.

Others who spoke referenced the Hill City Comprehensive Plan, which lays out what the city should look like.

The council members took issue with the information presented in their packed, which they believed did not have all the information needed to make a decision.

The council agreed with Miner and Houska that the process presented no clear instructions as to when to remove the sign.

The council voted 4-0 to remove the condition for the Cafe’s building permit that the sign must be removed before progressing with construction.

Alderman Steve Jarvis said after the vote was taken that, in the future, he wishes city employees involved in matters such as these are present at the meeting, referencing Schade’s absence.

Miner took the time to discuss what was, in his opinion, a lack of information in the packet.

“I ask that the complete record be provided,” he said. “It is unfair to council.”

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