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Sign ordinance has major, minor flaws

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Tweaks needed but chamber of commerce did work city, county government wouldn’t

By Ben Carlson

Column as I see ’em …
It’s a shame that after years of effort and no small amount of compromise the new sign ordinance being proposed by the Anderson County Chamber of Commerce does absolutely nothing to fix the current ordinance’s fatal flaw.
Not that the chamber could do a thing about that flaw, which is simply that two zoning boards of adjustments — one city, one county — can override the ordinance at will by granting waivers.
The chamber can’t change that problem; that’s the province of city and county lawmakers who, either through sheer disinterest or lack of will, have sat idly by for years as their appointed boards of adjustment ran roughshod over the current ordinance.
For instance, the current ordinance makes it painfully clear that businesses cannot erect signs with flashing message displays, but a quick look around town reveals that there are several.
Despite being very exacting and explicit, the new ordinance will fare no better if the rules aren’t followed by boards of adjustment members who, unlike those who appoint them, have no public accountability.
Not that following the ordinance to the letter of the law is the only problem. There is plenty of evidence that waivers are granted at times based on who’s doing the asking.
I sat in on a city zoning board of adjustments hearing several years ago when a local businessman requested a waiver to place a sign with a scrolling message atop a pole in front of his business.
Wearing work clothes and representing himself, his request was quickly dismissed with a resounding no.
During that same meeting, an attorney wearing a suit and tie and toting a briefcase made an almost identical request for his client. That waiver was approved immediately and with no discussion.
Until local lawmakers fix that problem, changes to the current sign ordinance won’t matter.

Speaking of problems …
The proposed sign ordinance has several, not the least of which is that it doesn’t jive particularly well with a pesky little thing called the First Amendment.
It also misses the mark on what a sign ordinance is supposed to do, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
If approved, residents with campaign signs in their yards will be forced to remove them seven days after an election, a move debated by the fiscal court following the most recent general election until it was pointed out that such a rule infringes on a person’s right to free speech.
Provided the signs aren’t outside of the legal size limits, government has no business limiting a person’s political speech on his or her own private property.
Curiously, the proposed ordinance gives much more latitude to business signs located on residential property, including allowing real estate companies to keep a “sold” sign in front of a residence for up to 30 days — more than four times longer than campaign signs. It also allows for a plethora of commercial signs in yards for contractors and service providers.
If the argument on campaign signs is that neighbors will get sick of seeing them, it’s doubtful those same neighbors will be giddy to look at an endless parade of commercial messages, particularly if they aren’t interested in who shingled their neighbor’s roof, trimmed her hedges or sold his house.
That, more than anything, is exactly where this proposed ordinance misses the mark. The purpose of a sign ordinance is fairly simple: to allow people to comfortably find the location of a local business. When done right, people aren’t bombarded with commercial messages — such as the eight billboards on US 127 this ordinance would allow — but yet able to unobtrusively find the business locations they seek.
That the proposed ordinance instead seems more focused on creative ways to pump out commercial messages instead of simply finding a business location isn’t a big surprise. The chamber board (I’m a member but am ethically compelled to avoid helping create or propose public policy) is comprised primarily of business owners who understandably are interested in, well, doing business.
There’s not a thing in the world wrong with that and their efforts here are to be applauded because, frankly, the chamber did the work elected city and county officials had no interest in doing.
Nevertheless, it’s doubtful this proposal will make it unscathed through the city council and fiscal court spanking machines without some major tweaks, if it gets that far at all.
It first has to endure inspection by the joint planning and zoning board, which can alter it, kill it or make an up or down recommendation to the city and county.
Or simply ignore it.
Regardless of what happens, all three should first decide how to better handle variance requests and make the application of any sign ordinance fair and equitable for all.