Council flags sign ordinance for retreat topic

Published 10:54 pm Wednesday, June 1, 2011

City Council members decided to put a conversation on the city’s sign ordinance on their retreat agenda after a discussion during their work session on Wednesday.

The topic came up at the last council meeting, when the owners of Tidewater Carpet Connection voiced concerns about perceived unfair enforcement of a city ordinance prohibiting temporary flags, banners and other such tools to promote businesses.

The business had placed a number of flags behind their location in Freedom Plaza along Godwin Boulevard. Only the rear of the building is visible from the main thoroughfare, so Patricia and Steve Orr put some tall flags behind the building advertising their products.

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A city staff member soon informed them that the flags would have to come down because they are not permitted under the Unified Development Ordinance.

The Orrs complied, but they weren’t happy about it — particularly since other businesses were violating the same ordinance at the same time, they said.

They drove around town, snapping photos of the other violations, and brought them to City Council two weeks ago. Yesterday, they said, some of the violations still had not been fixed.

“We feel like they’ve singled us out,” Steve Orr said after the work session that focused on the issue. “We’re being singled out, and there’s laws against it.”

The city’s director of Planning and Community Development, Scott Mills, said there are only two inspectors to ensure compliance with a number of ordinances across the entire city, and it’s nearly impossible to have compliance from every business at one time.

“It’s an ongoing process,” he said, noting that his staff has responded to more than 900 zoning complaints in the last nine months. “It never ends.”

Councilman Michael Duman, an auto dealership owner, has been on both sides of the fence. He’s had to take down signs after being notified they violated the ordinance.

“I don’t believe that the city personnel acts with any malice at heart,” he said, noting he empathizes with the Orrs. He wanted city staff to look into a compromise ordinance that would be less restrictive on certain kinds of outdoor advertising devices.

At the same time, he said, “It doesn’t need to look like a circus going up and down the road.”

The Orrs said they did not feel like Wednesday’s presentation addressed their concerns. Patricia Orr also spoke during the regular meeting, noting more than two dozen signs she had observed last week just in the greater downtown area that violate the ordinance. She also countered the suggestion that city staff members are too busy to call on more violators. Based on about 900 zoning complaints in nine months, the math works out to two or three per day for each inspector.

“You bust your butt trying to make a living, and you get stuff like this,” Steve Orr said.

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Linda T. Johnson said the city does care about its small businesses and is working on the issue.

“We will work things out,” she said. “Life isn’t perfect, but we’re working on it.”