Stricter sign regulations are being eyed by Mount Airy officials, who want to keep large billboards from dominating the landscape while also recognizing the right of businesses to advertise.
This conflict was evident Monday night when the city council and Mount Airy Planning Board held a joint meeting to discuss proposed changes in the local zoning ordinance pertaining to signs.
The catalyst for the revisions was a concern raised in January by South Ward Commissioner Shirley Brinkley about a recent proliferation of billboards in the city, especially a clutter along the U.S. 601 business corridor.
This led to the commissioners deciding then to impose a moratorium on further billboard installations until the planning board could explore changes in existing regulations that are considered too lax concerning those larger signs.
With proposed revisions completed, members of that board and the council — about 12 altogether — met jointly Monday night, when Brinkley reiterated her concerns about billboards.
“I don’t have a problem with billboards in the right location,” she said. “But the ones on (U.S.) 601 are eating the buildings alive.”
Yet there also were ample comments Monday night from the other side of the argument.
“I do agree we need to limit the huge billboards, but people need to advertise their businesses,” Mayor David Rowe said.
One of the factors behind the recent proliferation involves the fact billboards have been relatively easy to install in Mount Airy compared to other communities, city Planning Director Andy Goodall said.
This basically has required finding a permissible location — highway business zones along major roadways, where such signs must be at least 500 feet apart — submitting a plan and paying a fee.
“I asked to have this done for a reason,” Brinkley said Monday night of more stringent billboard regulations to address something she finds bothersome. Brinkley asked if something can be done to say “no more billboards in Mount Airy.”
“It’s really an eyesore after a while,” she continued. “I’m just concerned about more huge signs.”
The new regulations address that by increasing the minimum distance between off-premises billboards to 1,000 feet and restricting the height of the signs to 30 feet. Under the lax rules now in place, those placing signs want to make them as high as possible, Goodall said.
“I think a lot of what you’re going to see is the height difference,” he said of what’s proposed.
Among other rules in the draft sign measure, no “double-decker” or side-by-side billboards would be allowed, which are permitted now.
However, Goodall said that in developing the proposed revisions, he doesn’t think the planning board wanted to eliminate billboards, just make them harder to install. And any new rules receiving final approval will apply only to future signs.
“So we’re still going to have the existing billboards,” Goodall explained. “You can’t make people take existing billboards down — they’re protected.”
He pointed out that “the new ones would have to meet the new standards.”
Putting in “teeth”
Goodall suggested an additional change Monday night which would serve to eliminate existing billboards deemed as problems — eventually.
The planner explained that this would involve allowing time for existing signs to be brought into compliance. Since it takes about seven years for a billboard to degrade, replacement signs would have to meet the new requirements and not be “grandfathered in,” Goodall said.
Permits would still be granted in the interim for sign maintenance, with full compliance required at the end of the seven years.
“And that will give you the vision that you seek,” Goodall said.
“That was the discussion (by planners) on how to give this a little more teeth,” he said of one goal by municipal officials with the new measure. Goodall suggested that the seven-year period, ending on July 1, 2023, be added to the new proposal, to which they seemed agreeable.
Yet the proposal was met with some skepticism.
“Did we get any input from the business community about how critical signs are?” Mayor Rowe asked the planning director, who said this did not occur.
Other sign issues
Some skepticism also was apparent Monday night regarding regulations for other types of signs which are included among the proposed changes, such as real estate signage, political posters, yard sale signs and others.
Goodall said the city’s entire sign ordinance was revamped for multiple reasons.
“There had to be so many changes in it that we decided from the get-go that rather than making amendments, we’d just scrap the whole thing.”
Another factor was a recent Supreme Court decision arising from a case in Arizona. The high court ruled 9-0 in 2015 that regulations categorizing signs based on the type of information they convey (such as temporary, political and ideological) and then applying different standards to each category are content-based regulations of speech.
That is not permissible under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the court decided in mandating “content-neutral” approaches.
But Brinkley and others pointed out Monday night that regulations now proposed here address signs which haven’t been a problem, unlike billboards.
“You can nitpick something to death,” she said in suggesting that there are too many regulations involved with the process now at hand. “I just don’t want it to be any more complicated that it already is.”
“I feel a threat of over-regulation,” Commissioner Jim Armbrister agreed.
“Somebody’s got to enforce all this,” he said regarding the plethora of rules. “They do add to the duties of others within the city.”
And one thing the city government definitely wants to avoid is restricting business, officials said.
Commissioner Steve Yokeley said businesses do need to advertise using signs in order to be successful.
Along with the stated goals of the revised ordinance, which include such considerations as appearance and traffic safety, Yokeley asked that another be added: The measure is not meant to hinder local commerce by excessive regulations.
Yokeley said it includes protections for others, including owners of property located near signs, but none for the businesses.
The Mount Airy Planning Board will make a final recommendation on the proposed changes next Monday, and then the ball will be in the city council’s court.
That will pave the way for citizens to have input on the measure, with a public hearing tentatively set for early June.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.