Construction work has begun on Petaluma's East Washington Place shopping center, but the controversy may not be over.

The developer's sign proposal comes before the Planning Commission on Tuesday and it goes well beyond what the city usually allows.

The landmark sign — the largest one in the center — is proposed as a 60-foot-tall freestanding structure equal in height to the Petaluma Auto Plaza sign.

The auto mall sign was erected in 1991 to "immediate and widespread horror," according to media coverage then, and a lawsuit sought unsuccessfully to have it removed.

Senior Planner Irene Borba noted that both the 60-foot height of the shopping center sign and its proposed orientation toward Highway 101 violate the city's sign codes. She recommends the seven-member Planning Commission reduce the height and relocate the sign.

Construction on East Washington Place began late last month after years of making its way through the city planning process and in the face of critics who said the 378,000-square-foot center was too big, ugly or was in the wrong place.

The developer, Regency Centers, bought the property at East Washington Street and Highway 101 for $22 million in 2004 with the intention of bringing Target to Petaluma.

After dueling lawsuits were filed — and later dismissed when developers made a few design changes and paid the opposition $150,000 including legal fees — the city approved the project in 2010.

The shopping center will cover 34 acres and include Target, Dick's Sporting Goods, Sprouts market, TJ Maxx, ULTA Cosmetics and restaurants Panera and Chipotle, according to paperwork filed with the city.

Borba said the proposed 60-foot sign's location in the back corner of the development and its orientation toward the freeway are at odds with city guidelines meant to prevent visual clutter and oversized signage.

The proposed location "provides an uninterrupted view from northbound traffic on Highway 101," Borba's report said. It is proposed to have "Welcome to Petaluma" at its top.

She proposes moving the sign further south so it will be visible from Kenilworth Drive and not primarily Highway 101.

Regency also proposes three 15-foot tall signs facing East Washington at access points and six lower-profile signs within the center. Borba recommended allowing only two taller signs and four smaller ones.

The city's ordinance also prohibits signs on the back of buildings that face 101, which Regency also proposes.

The Planning Commission meeting begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall. Any decisions could be appealed to the City Council.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori Carter at 762-7297 or