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May 8, 2014

Signage highlights busy public hearings schedule

TIFTON — Five public hearings were held Monday evening prior to the regular City Council meeting being called to order. Among that list were two public hearings regarding changes to signage and the Historic District Manual.

Bert Crowe, director of the environmental management department, explained the following changes: amend Chapter 7 (signage) to add definitions for signage types, amend restrictions of signage types relative to zoning districts, provide for the regulation of electronic display signs and to reduce the reclamation fee to recover impounded signs; and amend the city of Tifton's Historic District Manual Chapter 2 Section IV Signage to provide for definitions, the use of banners, stick signs and A-frame signs, provide for other means of illumination, provide for the regulation of electronic display signs and for other purposes.

City attorney Rob Wilmot allowed for anyone in the audience to speak in favor or against the proposed amendments. No one spoke in favor of the amendments to Chapter 7 of the Land Development Code. However, someone did have a question.

"Is this saying that you cannot have those kind of signs in a normal commercial area — the scrolling, blinking, flashing?" asked a citizen in the audience.

"No, what that's saying is that they're going to be regulated within the city of Tifton — the Electronic Graphic Display (EGD) signs. They will be regulated in accordance with what the guidelines are as far as the size and, if they can scroll, how long does the display have to remain constant. That's what this deals with," explained Wilmot.

"So, this is no way saying you cannot have these signs?" the citizen asked.

"That's correct. It just regulates the size, the time limit in which the display has to be maintained," Wilmot said. "I think there's also a requirement that it has to be able to dim in accordance with the ambient light. So, that way, depending on the light that's outside, the light will automatically dim."

He said those are the specific requirements for EGD signs.

"You can have them, but they're going to be regulated with certain requirements," he said, noting they cannot flash or blink, but they can scroll.

Local businessman John Lowe then said he would like to speak in opposition of the amendment. He said he has two businesses and an EGD sign, which blinks, scrolls and flashes.

"There are several others in the same area that have virtually the same sign that I have," he said. "I have a problem with the city coming in after the fact and regulating signs that are already in existence. I have a deep problem with that. We have businesses here and we're trying to stay alive and survive. And, these signs add to their ability to stay alive and survive. The friendly city is coming in and saying, 'You cannot have this. Yes, we want businesses, but we're not going to help you very much to stay in business.' So, I do have a problem with this, and I think you ought to address that issue. I've spoken in opposition to this before. My understanding was that this was addressed to where these signs would be allowed, and yet, you're coming in here now and saying they cannot be allowed, they cannot be used. These signs cost a lot of money, like $5,000 to $8,000."

He added, "There are a lot of people who are in opposition to this — to the further regulation of businesses in this city and in the state and county."

Mayor Jamie Cater questioned this as well, commenting that he was a little confused. He said he thought they were going to regulate the amount of speed, which Crowe said yes.

Crowe explained the signs are allowed to scroll, which has never been an issue. He noted they already had in their ordinance not to allow blinking and flashing, as well as strobing, signage. He said they will allow the signs to change every three seconds and not to change more than every seven seconds.

Cater asked Lowe if he could just go by those guidelines with his sign.

"You can, but part of the value of these signs is their ability to flash," Lowe said. "I realize safety standards, but at the same time, this is not addressing that issue. That's not the reason they're addressing this issue. The reason they're addressing this issue is to stop people from displaying things, because it irritates some people. That's fine. They have a right to their opinion, but I have a right to mine as well."

When Wilmot asked if anyone would like to speak in favor of the proposed amendments to the Historic District Manual, Hal Baxley and Keith Schneider, who both own businesses in the Historic District, spoke.

Baxley said he owns three buildings that are in the Historic District — two are in the commercial downtown and one is in the RP (Residential Professional).

"It's been a long battle, and hopefully, we're near to getting it where businesses can survive, as John said, flourish and attract other ones to our downtown area in such a way it shouldn't bother anybody that's in the residential area," he said.

Baxley added that this sign issue has been going on for a year and three or four months.

"There's been a lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of effort put into this. I think it should be put to bed, and let's go on to something else," he said.

Schneider commented, "It's been well over a year since we started this process. It has in fact impacted my business. I'm sure it's impacted other businesses. I think it's time that we put this behind us. I don't understand for the life of me…I'm disappointed in the people here and I'm disappointed with the Historic Society that we could not turn around and have a simple meeting of the minds. If we had a conflict on a specific issue, it seems to me, we should have addressed and voted on one issue at a time and got it resolved. Instead, we held this up well over a year over flashing signs. It's time to end it. I sympathize with every business owner in here. We have to compete against big box stores. We're attacked daily with unlicensed businesses online, which brings absolutely no revenue into this community. And yet, we as business owners go every day to work, doing our share to generate income to this great town that we live in."

He agreed with Lowe, saying, "We are called the friendly city and as a business owner, I'm starting to have reservations about it being business friendly. We need to turn around and just put it to bed. Simple."

During the meeting, the council unanimously voted to approve the ordinance amending Chapter 7 of the Code of Ordinances related to signage, as well as the ordinance amending the Historic Preservation Design Guidelines Chapter 2, Section IV regarding signage.

Baxley stood and commended the council.

"You have done great things," he said. "And, there are things more to come that y'all can do for the city and businesses." He and others clapped.

To contact reporter Latasha Ford, call 382-4321.

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