Sign Law May Survive

Valentina’s (a.k.a. Blythewood House of Pizza) got on board early. This time next year, all Blythewood businesses may have to conform.

Town Planner Warns of ‘Fudge Creep’

BLYTHEWOOD – The controversy over the January 2016 deadline for compliance with the Town’s sign ordinance continued to percolate during a 5-hour Town Council work session on Jan. 14, but at last appears to be nearing an end.

During the session, three of the five Council members were leaning heavily toward maintaining the current sign ordinance, adopted in 2009. At the Blythewood Architectural Review (BAR) board meeting Tuesday evening, where a recommendation on proposed changes to the current sign ordinance was on the agenda as an action item, Town Administrator Gary Parker conceded to BAR members that wording was being drafted for the Jan. 26 Town Council agenda to leave the current ordinance intact.

Last week’s work session opened with a suggestion that had been backed in previous discussions by Mayor J. Michael Ross – that a 10 percent variance be allowed on sign dimensions for all current signs. In presenting the item for discussion, Parker referred to the proposed variance as a ‘fudge factor.’

Councilman Bob Massa, however, opposed fudging, saying some fudging leads to more fudging.

“Leave it (the current sign ordinance) out there and deal with it on an individual basis,” Massa said. “If it (the sign) is 4 inches over, that’s fine, but if you build in a 10 percent fudge factor, that’s an additional three feet on a sign that’s only supposed to be 32 square feet. That’s a pretty big variance.”

Massa gave the example of an unwritten understanding by the public that the police won’t pull a driver over for going just 5 miles over the speed limit.

“We, as a society, have stretched that to 15 miles over the limit. We do what we can get away with. So if there’s a 10 percent fudge factor, we know it’s out there and we fudge to 15 percent. That’s only 5 percent more,” he said with a shrug. “I could bring you a design for a 32-square-foot sign and you approve it, but I could tell my contractor to stretch it out that extra 3 feet because I’ve got a 10 percent variance.”

Town Planner Michael Criss agreed saying, “There is the potential for fudge creep.”

Massa said the Town was just trying to maintain uniformity.

“We’re not telling businesses what materials or designs to use. There’s enough discretion (with the zoning administrator) to provide variance relief,” Massa said. “The language in the ordinance is there because we thought that was a fair standard to build to. If (business owners) can’t build to that standard for some reason, then they can come in and talk about it and we can make a decision. The ordinance is what it is. It’s the target.”

Current Ordinance Allows Variances

Parker agreed, explaining that the ordinance, as it is written now, actually allows for some discretion on the part of the zoning administrator regarding signage size. He said, for example, that wall signs have a size limitation but a provision allows the zoning administrator to decide whether a larger wall sign might be more appropriate for a larger area.

“Then,” Parker said, “the administrator has the latitude to overrule the dimension requirements.”

Criss said there was additional discretion. “If the sign is 6 inches to the nearest foot, it might give the administrator 6 inches to play with – round up, round down,” Criss said.

Ross, who has favored making changes to the 2009 sign ordinance, said more than 60 percent of the businesses could have to put up new signs to comply with the ordinance.

Parker pointed out, however, that while about “Sixty percent of the current signs might be out of compliance, most of them only marginally exceed the current requirements and fall within the discretion I have to say, ‘You’re okay’.”

Ross said he felt businesses needed “to know they are going to have to replace that sign. There will be a cost. It’s in black and white. It’s got to be 4-feet-by-8-feet now. It will look good, but I believe there will be a backlash from the businesses,” Ross added.

In the end Ross conceded that the ordinance was passed five years ago and that it will result in making the town look better.

“Maybe we could offer a seminar that would show businesses how to offset their costs,” Ross said. “We could bring in an expert to tell them how to write this off.” He continued, however, that a 10 percent variance would be a good idea.

No Outcry of Opposition

Parker said he didn’t think there would be an outcry of opposition to enforcing the ordinance. Parker said letters went out to all business owners last week explaining the need for compliance by next January, and that only six business owners/managers had called, mostly the larger businesses with high-rise signs. And those, he said, were not complaining but just asking questions.

During the BAR meeting on Tuesday evening, the board verbally agreed not to vote on the issue, even though it was listed as an action item on the agenda, saying they felt the current sign ordinance came about because of the community’s desire for the town to have a nice appearance.

McLean Calls for Minimum Standards

But BAR member Jim McLean did suggest the sign ordinance be amended to address minimum standards for signs.

“Signage does set the tone for the town,” McLean said, referring to the lack of rules and regulations for the upkeep and maintenance of signs in the town.

BAR member Curtis Brown pointed out that the current ordinance (155.442 sec. E) does address maintenance of signs, but that there are no teeth in the ordinance to make business owners maintain their signs in good appearance.

In other business, the BAR re-elected Michael Langston chairman and elected Curtis Brown vice-chairman. They also decided, without voting, though it was on the agenda as an action item, to ask McLean to create wording to propose that the Blythewood Historical Society be designated as an advisor for the recommendation of historical structures within the town.