Sign Debate Heats Up

Pat Littlejohn, Vice Chairwoman and a 12-year member of the Blythewood Board of Zoning Appeals, argues that changes to the BZA’s rulings by Town Hall leads to inequality in the application of the Town’s sign ordinance. (Photo/Barbara Ball)

Planning Commission Pushes for Delay

BLYTHEWOOD – In a surprise announcement at the October Planning Commission meeting, Chairman Malcolm Gordge reported that Town Council was rethinking the sign ordinance that was passed in 2009 that calls for the majority of non-conforming signs in the town limits to be replaced with conforming signs by Jan. 26, 2016. The high-rise signs along I-77 would have to comply with the ordinance by January 2020.

He said the ordinance is “obviously going to cause some difficulties for local businesses. . . . What’s being proposed,” Gordge said, “is a work session with representatives of the Planning Commission, the Board of Architectural Review and the Chamber of Commerce to get some feedback to determine how the businesses perceive this requirement to comply with the ordinance . . . so that we have plenty of time to come to a compromise.”

Gordge said the issue came to light as Town Hall began preparing to send notices out to businesses with non-conforming signs at least a year before the deadline when all signs (except the high rise interstate signs) in the town limits must to comply with the ordinance.

That workshop was held Tuesday night with Gordge and his fellow panel members quickly laying the groundwork for postponing conformity for all signs in the town until 2020. Mayor J. Michael Ross was represented by J.B. Bishop who argued for an extension of the compliance, raising his voice that it was not fair to ask businesses to purchase new signs.

Before inviting the opinions of any business owners in the audience, Gordge got the ball rolling by suggesting three options to the current sign ordinance, two of which call for an extension of the sign ordinance for four more years:

Follow the ordinance as written with compliance required on Jan. 26, 2016 and, for high-rise interstate signs, January 2020.

Extend the compliance order until 2020 for all businesses, but require a formal statement from the business owners that they would comply with the ordinance at that time.

Consider some form of continuing license so that businesses could pay an annual fee to retain their grandfathered signs until Jan. 26, 2020.

While only one business owner, Larry Sharpe of Blythewood Oil, and representatives of Trinity Unity Methodist Church had questions about their particular signs, there was no groundswell from the audience for changing the ordinance. And both the chairman and vice-chairwoman of the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), who were not on the panel, gave the panel a tongue lashing for allowing some business owners and churches a bye while others either agree, or are forced, to abide by the sign ordinance.

Pat Littlejohn, vice-chairwoman of the BZA and a member of the board for more than 12 years, said “Ninety-five percent of our requests are for sign variances.”

Addressing her question to Bishop, she asked, “How will you compensate those businesses who have complied with the sign ordinance regulations, who came here anticipating the 2016 deadline? I would argue that they have not been allowed to have the same advertising capacity as the other businesses who have non-conforming signs.”

While Bishop, speaking for the mayor, talked about the drop-dead date of the ordinance and the recession, Littlejohn reminded him that he was not answering her question.

“There are a lot of businesses out there who have complied. The Hardee’s was not allowed to put up a sign equal to McDonald’s, so if I were Hardee’s I would say these folks have gotten a bye. The same is true for the Days Inn who was made to comply,” Littlejohn said.

She also pointed out that the town administration is “obviously changing the rules (for some businesses and churches) after they have been denied a variance from the BZA. I don’t know how Trinity (UMC) now has a sign that does not comply with the ordinance,” she said referring to a comment earlier in the meeting by BZA chairman Sabra Mazyck that the motion for a variance for Trinity’s sign was denied on Monday, May 5, 2008 according to the minutes from the meeting.

Littlejohn recalled that “at one point, there was an effort for us to not look like Two-Notch Road. There are plenty of communities that do not have non-conforming signs. And they have plenty of business, so that’s an invalid argument.”

Sharpe said he had no problems complying with the signs within the town, saying, “Everybody knew this date was coming (for compliance).”

But, he said if he was made to take down his interstate high-rise BP sign, he would consider that a government taking.

“If that sign has to come down, I think the Town will have to pay me for it,” he said.

He said he erected the sign in 1978 when the town was only loosely formed and he didn’t feel it should have a date set to come down. He said he felt the signs brought business to the town and that the town government benefited from the business taxes he paid.

“We bought that property because of the visibility on the interstate. Those issues will have to be decided in the courts,” Sharpe said.

He said it would cost $150,000 to replace his high-rise sign and $50,000 to replace the Bojangles sign.

“But I don’t have any problem conforming (my) other signs in the town,” he said. “That’s not an issue.”

Several members of the panel mentioned that the town’s businesses needed more time to comply with the ordinance. Bishop suggested that they needed time to save up some money for new signs.

But Littlejohn said she was surprised at the sudden amnesia.

“Since 2009, every person who has come before us, we have informed them of the 2016 decision,” she said. “It’s frustrating that we have been very diligent to enforce the ordinance while trying to be pragmatic. If the rules keep changing, we will continue to have problems.”

While one member of the panel seemingly dismissed her by thanking her for her service, Gordge stuck to his guns.

“We aren’t going to please everyone, but we must reach a conclusion that will be fair to the majority,” he said. “The only mitigating circumstance is that we weren’t anticipating a recession in 2006, 7 and 8.”

Town Councilman Bob Massa, a member of the panel, pointed out that the ordinance wasn’t passed until 2009 and that the committee that wrote the ordinance included many of the town’s business owners.

When a representative of Trinity said he didn’t feel the Town was giving enough notice to comply with the ordinance, Town Councilman Bob Mangone, who was sitting in the audience, said, “You have been notified seven years ago. I have not heard anything in this room to make me believe that four or five more years is going to cause the business owners to have an epiphany and decide to plan ahead. We had seven years to plan for this and the BZA has worked their butts off to make the best decision based on the ordinance. And now, one and a half years before the deadline, we’re saying, ‘Oh, my. I didn’t know this was going to happen’.”

Gordge sallied forth. “I’m hoping to get a consensus tonight that we make a recommendation to the Town Council to extend the deadline date from Jan. 26, 2016 to 2020. That seems to be the most popular response,” he said.

“If that’s what is going to happen, then please don’t ask for any more variances from the BZA, because we’ll be acting on what’s currently written in the ordinance,” Littlejohn declared.

Town Administrator Gary Parker spoke up from the back of the audience, cautioning Gordge, “I think it would be more appropriate to report information gathered at this meeting than to recommend to Council. Generally,” he said, “it’s only when a committee is appointed by Council and authorized to come back with a recommendation that that would be the case.”

Town Council’s next meeting will be Monday, Nov. 25.

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