Sign woes continue on old, new Highway 12

Officials and businesses are facing a double headache with signs -- or lack of them -- on old and new US 12.

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A lone car makes its way along Old Highway 12, which was been mistakenly signed as "Vintage Loop" as part of the latest widening project for U.S. Highway 12. Washington Department of Transportation officials have told county officials that signs with the correct name will be up by the middle of this month. (Aug. 4, 2010)

WALLA WALLA -- Signs of trouble or troublesome signs?

Wrong signs put up by the state on the Old Highway 12 have given county officials headaches. At the same time, the lack of signs directing traffic off the new U.S. Highway 12 to the old highway is hurting wineries.

But solutions to both issues are in the works and should be sorted out soon, officials say.

The topics were the subject of a workshop this week by Walla Walla County commissioners Gregg Loney, Perry Dozier and Greg Tompkins, who were joined by members of the county's Public Works and other departments.

First up: The incorrect signs. When the state Department of Transportation opened the realigned, four-lane stretch of highway between Walla Walla and Frenchtown more than a month ago they posted the wrong road signs identifying the old two-lane highway. The signs were not only incorrect, they were salt in the proverbial wound to many wineries.

Early in the planning process on the highway construction, winery operators lining the old highway had talked of renaming the roadway "Winery Loop" or "Vintage Loop" to help consumers find their way to winery doors. But those names were changed by county officials in favor of the "Old Highway 12" name. However, when the highway opened, the state erroneously posted the "Vintage Loop" sign.

State Department of Transportation officials have told county officials, however, signs with the correct name will be put up by the middle of this month.

But how to help businesses, particularly wineries, post signs to direct traffic off the new highway to the road now designated as Old Highway 12 is a problem that has not been so easy to solve.

As expected, the new highway took away the drive-by traffic to which the more than half-dozen wineries along that stretch had become accustomed. Exacerbating matters was the fact that many of the feeder roads that connect the two highways hadn't yet opened.

Now that they are, winery operators say there aren't enough signs to help direct consumers to their tasting-room destinations.

"It does affect us tremendously," said Debbie Hansen, co-owner of Cougar Crest Winery, 50 Frenchtown Road. "Signage is going to be instrumental in making our businesses able to continue to do well."

A cluster of the "west-end wineries" have been meeting regularly to try to come up with solutions. Among them are Cougar Crest, Glencorrie winery, Skylite Cellars, Bunchgrass Winery, Reininger Winery and Three Rivers Winery. Ronn Coldiron of Glencorrie said everybody's business has decreased since the new highway opened.

"It's a tax and commerce issue," he said. "This is just a huge, huge mess."

He said state regulations won't allow winery operators to add signs to the old highway. But operators are hopeful the county will help by allowing them to post winery-funded signs on some of the county property. Some sections of the new highway, including right of way land near the feeder sections, will be deeded to the county over time, officials say.

County officials say they want to help the wineries and have asked staff to look into interim codes that will help make placement of the signs possible.

"The only issue we have is that we've got to make sure they're safe," Commissioner Greg Tompkins said.

"We want to work with (the wineries). All three of us commissioners are small business people. We understand their plight. We just need to make sure on the flip side that we protect the county and the taxpayers from liability."

He said staff members may be able to come up with interim standards by as early as Monday. If that's the case, the wineries could move forward with their privately funded signs.

Two sections of the county codes govern signs. Title 12 allows placing a sign as long as it doesn't obstruct a roadway or interfere with sight lines. The second section, Title 17, requires signs, except for those in industrial or commercial zones, to be placed 30 feet back from street right of way.

But in a photo slideshow, John Dirr of the county Public Works Department showed numerous examples of signs that don't meet the 30-foot setback rule. However, he said, such signs do not generally pose a problem as long as they only straddle the right of way boundary, don't block sight lines or otherwise pose a hazard.

Tompkins said abating the impact is important to the county budget. "Anybody that buys wine in their shops pays sales tax," he said. "Quite frankly, if sales in their tasting rooms are down it's definitely going to impact us."

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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