Columbia County panel debates signs aimed at tourists
WYOCENA — Last fall, a Columbia County Highway Department crew came upon someone erecting a new directional sign to a campground along a county highway.
You’re not supposed to do that, they said — and under the county’s existing ordinances, they were correct.
But Columbia County has at least 10 campgrounds, and not even Highway Commissioner Chris Hardy knows how many of them have planted not-quite-legal signs on county trunk highways, or in the roads’ rights of way, to attract the attention of tourists looking for a place pitch their tents or park their recreational vehicles.
This led the county’s Highway Committee to continue its discussion Thursday of modifying the county’s sign ordinance to accommodate tourism-oriented directional signs.
It’s principally campgrounds — there are at least 10 of them in Columbia County — that utilize directional signs, Hardy told the committee, but other tourism-related endeavors also do so, including a paintball park along Highway CS near Poynette.
Victor Chacon, owner of the Sleepy Dragon Campgrounds near Rio, said his campground already is open — its season runs from April through October — and he’s still waiting for word from county officials on what to do about his two signs that are posted on county roads.
According to Chacon, the posts for those signs have been in place for at least 20 years, from when the campground was known as Little Bluff; the name was changed to Sleepy Dragon in 2016.
The old signs are still posted, but he said he doesn’t know for how long.
“I’ve talked to a lot of campground owners all over Wisconsin, and this is only a big problem in Columbia County,” Chacon said. “Other places can have signs, even blue tourism signs.”
Signs posted along state highways are regulated by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
But on county highways, they’re not allowed at all under the county’s existing sign ordinance, which only allows signs related to traffic regulation, Hardy said.
The changes the committee is exploring, according to Hardy, include accommodating signs on county highways that point travelers in the direction of tourist attractions, establishing rules for the signs, requiring the highway department to erect them and setting prices for the highway department’s work.
All of that still needs to be worked out, Hardy said, which is why the matter likely will be discussed again in June, and maybe in July, before an ordinance revision proposal is offered to the County Board for consideration.
Hardy said he contacted officials of all 72 Wisconsin counties, and only a few responded. Some have ordinances that allow only the state-regulated tourism signs, with white lettering on a blue background.
Some counties address the issue by ordinance, others by policy, and others treat tourism signs as a conditional use under the county’s zoning ordinances, Hardy said.
He said he would like to have Columbia County’s ordinance spell out regulations for how large the signs can be, what information can be posted on them and where they can placed.
And Hardy said he would like to have the highway department, and not tourism site owners, put up the signs, to ensure that they meet safety standards, such as using breakaway posts to lessen the impact of a crash.
By Hardy’s calculation, the actual cost per sign — including the sign, posts, other equipment and installation — would come to about $377.
Committee member Henry St. Maurice of Columbus said a sign ordinance likely would help tourism-oriented businesses. Signs erected in compliance with state safety standards are more likely to be picked up by global positioning systems, which many modern travelers use for navigation, he said.
Chacon said his regular customers know where to find Sleepy Dragon, and if anyone has any trouble locating it (off County Highway B on Traut Road), they can call him for directions.
“People can still find it with the old signs,” he said. “But I’d like to replace them with new signs.”