In early September, state transportation officials placed signs on Interstate 5 identifying exits for the St. Leon Cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Burbank — but without the typical legislative go-ahead.

Identifying significant institutions is nothing new for the California Department of Transportation, but the roadside signs require legislation. Now, three months after the church signs were installed, Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) has introduced the necessary resolution.

The resolution, which is expected to be approved, is the finishing touch on a years-long effort by Western Diocese of the Armenian Church officials to post signs pointing out the elaborate cathedral at 3325 N. Glenoaks Blvd. The signs came just days before a visit by His Holiness Karekin II, the pontiff of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

“This was a request of ours for several years, ever since the diocese was established,” spokesman Harouk Markarian said.

He said the church sought the roadside recognition because of the important role the campus plays in the life of Armenian Americans.

“It is the only cathedral in the Western United States for the Armenian church,” Markarian said. “It’s a celebration for our entire community.”

Gatto heard the request shortly after being elected in June, and pressed Caltrans to get to work on the signs before Karekin II’s arrival.

Normally, Caltrans makes special signs for churches, universities, museums and other institutions only after the state Legislature authorizes it. Caltrans spokeswoman Judy Gish said it is “very infrequent” for Caltrans to install signs before the paperwork is introduced.

“There was an urgency to the fact that the church was having the ceremony on Sept. 11,” Gish said. “Caltrans believed it could accommodate that request because we had every reason to believe all the criteria would be met at a later point.”

Gish said anyone — a university, a church, a person seeking to honor a loved one — can ask a lawmaker to sponsor a sign request.

Such requests are routine. In Los Angeles and Ventura counties, which comprise Caltrans’ District 7, the agency sees two or three requests every year, Gish said.

Taxpayers do not pay for the signs. Gish said the institutions or sponsors pay $2,500 per sign for manufacturing, installation and maintenance.

Markarian said the diocese paid for the signs, which appear on the northbound I-5 near the Hollywood Way exit, and for the Buena Vista Street exit off the southbound lanes.

Gatto said he was pleased that Caltrans acted so quickly, and that he promised to craft the legislation “on the first day” of the new session.

On Dec. 6, the opening of the Legislature’s brief session this month, Gatto introduced the resolution saying no state money would be used on the signs and the diocese site is “the headquarters for all parishes west of the Mississippi and is expected to attract motorists and tourists from all over the world.”

The bill is scheduled to be taken up next year.

– Bill Kisliuk

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