Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sign Ordinance Moratorium Sounds Good, but Problematic

For the record, I should first make it clear that Jon Howard and I were NOT satisfied with the new sign ordinance, and voted against it for a lot of different reasons. I am not against having a sign ordinance. They are GOOD for business. Sign ordinances keep the business next door from blocking the view of your sign with an enormous sign of their own. They keep the playing field fair. I just couldn't vote for the particular sign ordinance proposed.

Most recently, I was initially supportive of doing a moratorium on enforcement of the sign ordinance. Here's why:

The code enforcement director said Harvest Moon should never have received the warning handed out by one of his employees. Apparently, the director believes the ordinance gives Harvest Moon three years to rectify their alleged error in having two ground signs. Thus, it appears there is some confusion in the ranks about how the ordinance should be applied. Moreover, I understand that the owner believes he got some type of permission to use the sign, and invested money into it based on that permission. As a lawyer, that says to me that the owner may have detrimentally relied on city assurances, and may be entitled to some relief.

Overall, it seems ludicrous to me to worry about whether Harvest Moon is over the ground sign limit when we have burned out shells of buildings all over town. We have decades of ignored blight to deal with. That blight contributes to our crime problem. Crack heads, copper thieves, and meth cooks love abandoned buildings.

That is why I have asked staff to consult with outside legal counsel about the legality of adopting a resolution that acknowledges our limited code enforcement resources, and directs staff to focus on the worst code enforcement problems first -- namely dilapidated and abandoned buildings and junk cars. We would still enforce the sign ordinance, but enforcement would be complaint-driven. If a business complains that a business next door is blocking the view of his sign in violation of the sign ordinance, then we can address it.

The city attorney has given a preliminary opinion that we cannot do this, but I want to hear it from our sign expert. I have to believe this is permissible. As an analogy, we know we have speeders, robbers, burglars, and drug dealers in this town. The unwritten policy is that we put more resources into stopping drug dealers, robbers, and burglars than stopping speeders. We enforce all the laws on the books, but we put more money into stopping drug dealers, robbers, and burglars. If we cannot direct our resources via a resolution, then we should do it via our budget.

Then there's the whole Moe's thing about code enforcement going out and citing them for parking their Moe's van too close to the street. First off, the code enforcement director knew he had a problem after the Harvest Moon incident. Code enforcement did NOT go to Moe's as was reported. The code enforcement director met with the Moe's manager who appeared on TV as well as the owner. Both said code enforcement had not been out there in two years. In fact, the Moe's manager said she tried to explain that to the reporter who went out there. Unfortunately, that did not appear on camera.

Nonetheless, the Moe's story raises the issue of why we should even worry about trying to regulate the Moe's van signage anyway. There are cars driving all over this town with similar signage all day long!!!! All I can figure is that it wouldn't be fair to tell Harvest Moon they can only have one ground sign, but allow a pizza place to open next door and park a fleet of delivery vehicles with signs on them right next to Dawson Road. But I don't realistically see that happening. I am truly struggling to understand why we are concerned about car signage. That's one of the sign issues I want to explore further.

Okay, all the above suggests a moratorium would be a good idea, so last week I asked our planning director to call our outside attorney who is the sign ordinance expert about the pros and cons of a moratorium. This outside attorney is the one who has re-written sign ordinances for a number of cities in the state to make them enforceable. What is and is not enforceable changes every year. He has also been involved in lots of litigation over regular billboards and LED billboards. To date, our planning director has not heard back from him about the pros and cons of a sign ordinance moratorium.

Being a lawyer myself, here are the potential pitfalls I see in placing a general moratorium on enforcement of the sign ordinance. I defer to our sign expert to make the call, but I think it is my job to point out the issues.

First, right now the sign ordinance prohibits any NEW billboards in the city. If we say we are going to suspend enforcement of the sign ordinance for a period of time, I bet the billboard companies are going to immediately submit tons of requests to place more billboards all over town. Of course, if we have a moratorium on enforcement, they could really just put the billboards up wherever they wanted without submitting a request. That could be a mess.

Second, we have limited LED billboards in the city to 8, and are currently being sued to allow one more. During our last "moratorium" on LED billboards, we were slapped with about a dozen new LED billboard permit requests. If we put a moratorium on the ordinance which currently limits the number of LED billboards, then there is no law preventing billboard companies from putting up as many LED billboards as they want. That's another mess.

Third, let's say we just want to put a moratorium on enforcement of a specific provision in the sign ordinance, like say the one that is affecting Harvest Moon that says you can only have one ground sign. Well, if you stop enforcing that provision for 6 months, you can bet that a lot of businesses are going to take that opportunity to go ahead and plant another sign in the ground. Can you imagine if we woke up in six months, and had double the number of current ground signs? That could still be a mess.

Where do we go from here?

I am hopeful our sign expert is going to say we can adopt a policy regarding the allocation of our code enforcement resources that will take the focus off of aesthetics of our signage until we get the major blight cleaned up. Sign enforcement would be complaint-driven. That would give us the necessary time to get the sign ordinance right.

In the meantime, a task force (to include Chamber representatives, hopefully) is going to take a critical look at certain provisions within the sign ordinance. My hope is they will look at how cities like Valdosta, Tifton, Thomasville, etc. handle the same issues. I actually have a spreadsheet showing some comparisons that staff has worked up for me. I just have to figure out how to post it to this blog.

More to come...


Anonymous said...

mr. langstaff, how come you allowed the city manager to not enforce the original sign ordinance. i read he was quoted earlier that he didnt believe in it and wasnt going to enforce it. is that correct? why didnt you require him to enforce laws already on the books?

Bob Langstaff, Jr. said...

Your assumption is wrong. The city manager has had staff enforcing the bulk of the sign ordinance. For example, the sign ordinance was enforced to require all new signs to be permitted and restricted to certain size and location limitations. Also, the sign ordinance was enforced not to permit any additional billboards in the city.

However, the city attorney and the code enforcement director advised the city manager and city commission that certain provisions of the sign ordinance were no longer enforceable due to changes in Georgia law. Thus, certain provisions simply could not be legally enforced. For example, the sign ordinance (created back in the 1980's) did not specifically regulate L.E.D. or video billboards, but purported to prohibit "animated" signs. To avoid legal challenges as to the meaning of "animated" signs, a completely new section dealing with the L.E.D. billboards we see so much of in 2009 had to be enacted.

The city attorney initially set out to fix a few unenforceable sign ordinance provisions, but quickly learned that the whole ordinance needed to be re-examined to make it comply with over 20 years worth of changes in Georgia law. For example, it was discovered that many of the old signs around town that violated the original 1980's sign ordinance had never been brought into compliance. Our outside attorney who specializes in sign ordinances recommended that we adopt a three year amortization provision which would allow non-conforming signs to be brought into compliance gradually.