Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

City passes 'first reading' of sign ordinance


January 15, 2020

Steve Hansen

Police Chief David Lathrom presents a Certificate of Appreciation on Thursday to David Nava, who allowed the use of his truck to haul trash during a cleanup effort in which Tucumcari Police officers participated. Nava received the award at a city commission meeting.

A landmark sign ordinance that could pit private property rights against historic preservation received approval for publication at 2020's first meeting Thursday of the Tucumcari City Commission.

Thursday's meeting was the first for Paul Villanueva, who defeated incumbent Amy Gutierrez in November's elections to represent District 2. Villanueva was elected to a four-year term.

The commission, with District 1 Commissioner Ralph Moya voting "no" on two votes, also reinstated District 3 Commissioner Ruth Ann Litchfield as mayor, District 5 Commissioner Todd Duplantis as mayor pro tem and retained current committee and board memberships with one exception.

Villanueva will serve on the city's library board, and District 4 Commissioner Christopher Arias will serve on the city's cemetery board in the position Gutierrez held. The committee change would avoid a potential conflict of interest for Villanueva, Litchfield said.

Historic sign ordinance

On a second attempt, the commission passed a "first reading" of an ordinance designed to help the city retain historic neon signs that are part of the nostalgic Route 66 image that attracts tourists.

The first reading means the ordinance will be published and will undergo a public hearing before the commission takes a final vote to approve or reject it.

The ordinance presents a potential dispute between private property rights and the community's desire to preserve historic properties, according to commissioners who rejected a version of the ordinance at the commission's Dec. 19 meeting.

Duplantis, owner of two restaurants in the city, made the motion to approve first reading for the ordinance, though he had doubts about whether the new version still compromises the rights of property owners.

At a public work session before Thursday's meeting, Johnnie Meier, historic preservationist for the New Mexico Route 66 Association, advocated for protecting the signs.

Nationwide, he said, "historic Route 66 signs have become trophies for collectors. People are hunting for signs, cutting them down and hauling them away."

Even designating the signs on the National Register of Historic Places will not protect them from being purchased and taken away.

Tucumcari, he said, "could lead the nation" by passing an ordinance to keep historic signs in the city. "Tucumcari is the pilot."

As he did Dec. 19, Duplantis said the signs are private property, and the owners should have the right to sell the signs.

Restrictions on selling the signs, he said, could reduce property values by making properties less desirable to potential buyers, he said.

"What if they want to rebrand the property?" he asked.

Meier said the signs could be repurposed through "adaptive reuse," using the example of the Tucumcari sign that once advertised the Cactus Motel, which was reconfigured to denote the Cactus RV Park.

Moya supported Meier, saying the value of the signs to Tucumcari's tourism industry should outweigh private property owner rights.

In the revised draft of the ordinance approved for publication Thursday, the designation of a sign as a landmark would be voluntary on the part of the owner.

Duplantis said, however, an ordinance that relies on voluntary designation "isn't going to be worth the paper it's printed on."

Other revisions include making any landmark sign designation a resolution to be approved by the commission.

The new version also states an offer to purchase any landmark sign must be accompanied by a "good faith deposit of 25 percent of the proposed purchase price."

City manager Britt Lusk said putting up the deposit and placing it in escrow during a review period, which includes 60 days to allow for public hearings, possibly followed by up to 160 days to allow the commission to conduct a "removal/demolition review."

During the review period, the city would designate a "lead entity" which would "have responsibility for identifying and executing a preservation option." The options would include consultation with groups and agencies, recommending the landmark's purchase by an entity that would preserve it or moving a sign to another location to keep it in the city.

Once a sign is designated as a landmark, Lusk pointed out, the ordinance states violation of its provisions could result in a fine of up to $5,000 or imprisonment for up to 90 days, or both.

Dino prints

The commission also approved using $10,400 in Lodger's Tax money to install dinosaur footprints from Tucumcari's First Street exit from eastbound Interstate 40 to the Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum at 222 E. Laughlin Ave.

Loni Monahan, director the museum, told the commission the 5-by-4-foot prints would be professionally painted onto the street by Sandbar Construction, a company that paints stripes on New Mexico highways, and the paint would include glow-in-the dark beads for nighttime visibility.

The museum has obtained permission from the New Mexico Department of Transportation, required because First Street is part of a state highway, to install the footprints.

"The college will maintain the prints," she said, and she indicated the lodgers tax board is "100 percent on board" with the idea.

In response to city commissioners' concerns that Mesalands should pay for the project, college President John Groesbeck said while the city benefits from visits to the museum, the college already pays for billboard advertising for the museum while maintaining the facility.

"I think it's one of the most-visited tourist attractions for this area, he said.

The dinosaur tracks, he said, could be connected with guiding markers pointing toward other museums in the area, including the Tucumcari Historical Museum, the Tucumcari Railroad Museum and the city's Route 66 museum.

Call for strategic planning

In the work session before the regular meeting, Lusk called on commissioners to think about developing a strategic plan to deal with the city's mounting needs in the face of declining population and tax revenues.

In addition, he said, minimum wages are rising, which will place added burdens on city budgets. With minimum wage rising to $9 from $7.50 per hour this year, he said, city spending will rise by $134,000 to pay for it. When it rises to $12 per hour, the city will spend $280,000 a year more for personnel than it is now.

Experienced workers, he said, often are making less than $12 per hour.

The city, Lusk said, needs a plan based on an assessment of its current situation, setting goals and priorities and actions required to achieve those goals, he said.

Decisions in the face of mounting needs and declining revenues, he said, need to be "data-driven" so planning should include measurement of results.

The city has problems in recruiting employees for vacant positions, Lusk said.

Moya suggested employees cross-train for other positions so they can do other work if needed, making fewer employees necessary.

Other action

The commission Thursday also:

n Approved a contract for billing service for the city's emergency medical services. The contract was awarded to Omni Billing Services, which submitted a bid that would have the city paying 6% of total bills. The current contractor, EMS Billing Services, charges 9% of total, Fire Chief Doug Hogan said.

n Approved the city's annual Open Meetings Act Resolution in which, among other things, it agrees to hold meetings open to the public, except when discussing pending litigation, personnel matter or purchase or sale of property, and publish a schedule of meeting dates. State law requires the city to adopt the resolution once a year.

n Approved budget adjustments for the second quarter of fiscal year 2020 that ends June 30 that resulted in a budgeted deficit of $169,020, but leaves $487,484 in favorable variances for all city funds. Fiscal activity in November and December left a positive balance of $417,743.95.

n In comments from citizens, Manny Chavez, a Tucumcari native who returned to the area after living in California, said other Californians living in Tucumcari ask when the city will take care of burned out buildings and what happened to plans for a freshwater shrimp farm, park improvements and other enhancements that have never materialized.

"I don't know what to tell them," he said. "They don't know whether to stay or leave."

Tucumcari resident Robert Carr suggested the city designate a bicycle lane along Historic Route 66.

"I see a lot of bikes in town," he said.

n In commissioner comments, Duplantis expressed gratitude for community support of his Operation Thank You event that sent 1,500 packages of treats to military members stationed overseas during the holidays.

Duplantis also wondered how the owner of a collapsed building at Second and Main streets managed to escape liability for cleaning the site and said he hoped it would not require 10 years to clear it.

Lusk said the city would have a hard time spending $500,000 as it did to clean up the Sands Dorsey building nearby, which stood in dilapidated condition for eight years before it was cleared in 2015. The city is exploring alternatives such as assistance from New Mexico MainStreet to make the cleanup project a public-private partnership.

In comments, Moya said the city "dropped the ball" in getting the site cleared up.

The site's owner is in prison, he noted, but the city should still be able to work with him.


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