Businesses owners in Mount Airy can breathe a sigh of relief now that new sign regulations have been approved for the city — minus provisions that had drawn fire last month.
Among controversial elements removed during final action Thursday night on a municipal sign ordinance was one that would have required freestanding signs at existing businesses which don’t meet certain height and area requirements to be replaced within seven years. Though the more-stringent size regulations remain, these will apply only to signs for new businesses locating in town.
Also, city officials backed away from imposing tougher billboard regulations — over the objections of Commissioner Shirley Brinkley — opting to maintain existing rules.
Another provision eliminated was a set of regulations proposed for windows of businesses.
The final, 26-page sign ordinance was approved unanimously at Thursday night’s meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, after a consensus had been reach on those various points during a special meeting during the afternoon.
Discussion at the afternoon session seemed to boil down to a debate over appearance issues versus what’s good for business — with the majority of city officials coming down in support of the latter as representatives of sign-installation and other firms watched.
That was evident with the decision to leave Mount Airy’s billboard regulations intact, rather than effectively legislate those large signs out of existence.
Jim Troy, the owner of a Charlotte company that installs billboards in this area, had vehemently complained during a public hearing last month about restrictions that were proposed, such as one billboard not being allowed within 1,000 feet of another.
After Troy argued at the hearing that this and other proposed regulations would permit no further billboards to be erected in Mount Airy, city Planning Director Andy Goodall responded with amendments lessening the separation distance between those signs, among others.
And that brought a reaction Thursday afternoon from Commissioner Brinkley, whose concerns about billboards in January led to a moratorium on installations and a total revamping of Mount Airy’s sign ordinance to reflect various changes.
“If this passes, I’d like to see these numbers put back in where they were at the last meeting,” she said of reinstating tougher restrictions in the ordinance which had drawn fire at the June public hearing.
“I do not want billboards in the city limits — I think there’s already too many,” said Brinkley, who is especially bothered by those which promote out-of-town businesses. This includes one on U.S. 601 advertising the hospital in Elkin, “a rock throw from our own hospital.”
Brinkley said billboards belong on the open road, such as along interstate highways, rather than in town. “It’s the appearance more than anything,” she explained. “It just doesn’t look good.”
However, Troy — the Charlotte sign installer who was present for Thursday’s session — said proposed regulations that greatly limit where billboards could be placed based on the distance from others and residential property were overly restrictive.
“On its face, it’s unfair — period,” Troy said.
“I don’t think there could be an additional ‘board built,” he remarked. “I think Shirley’s accomplished what she wanted to accomplish.”
Brinkley’s stance also was questioned by Travis Key, one of the owners of Homeway Furniture on West Lebanon Street.
Key said the store relies on billboards, including one on U.S. 601, to draw in business. He also questioned Brinkley’s contention that billboards belong only on interstates, arguing that a customer likely is more willing to drive across town to a business than go to the trouble of leaving the interstate.
At one point Thursday, Brinkley said she didn’t want to cause problems for local businesses and conceded that “I think I will be voted down on this.”
That proved true with comments by other officials including Mayor David Rowe, who said it “disturbs” him that the municipality depends on the business community for tax revenues and it was now trying to limit their advertising capabilities.
“I think it’s just a huge overreach by government.”
Commissioner Jon Cawley agreed.
“Supply and demand, or capitalism, works, and the only reason people use billboards is they find them effective to promote their message,” Cawley said. “I don’t feel good about making it hard on them.”
In deciding to maintain existing billboard rules, the majority of city officials indicated they were content to require only a 500-foot separation between off-premises outdoor advertising signs; 300 feet between a billboard and a residential zoning district; and have no height restriction, which was proposed at 35 feet.
Billboards can be located only in general business, highway business and industrial zones on property fronting U.S. 52-Bypass, U.S. 601 southwest from U.S. 52-Bypass and N.C. west of that bypass — within 330 feet of the right of way.
7-year deadline dropped
Officials also agreed Thursday to not require existing businesses to replace signs non-compliant with new height and area requirements by July 2023.
“This would only pertain to new signs,” Goodall said.
That issue had brought concerns at last month’s hearing from business representatives, who said replacing signs within seven years would pose a major expense.
The regulations limit the height of signs in general business, highway business and industrial zones to 15 feet for those up to 64 square feet in area, and 20 feet for signs with an area exceeding 64 square feet. Such a sign could be 35 feet high under the old requirements.
Commissioner Cawley suggested Thursday that this rule might have prevented a business relying on taller signs, such as Cracker Barrel, from coming to town. “I just don’t want to see us lose out,” he said of such additions.
In opting to eliminate restrictions on non-residential window signs, city officials took the lead of Commissioner Jim Armbrister, who spent more than 20 years in the grocery industry before joining the Mount Airy Police Department.
Armbrister said stores often depend on windows to advertise specials and similar uses he called “crucial” to their operations.
“Space is money,” he added.
“I don’t see a goal here of trying to regulate someone’s window space,” Armbrister said in questioning why this would be beneficial. “I don’t see the necessity for that type of regulation unless we see some kind of abuse — it’s just not worth the enforcement.”
Goodall said the window sign rules were included to keep businesses from abusing standards for signs on exterior walls.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.