Local government eyes digital signage amendments

County contemplates billboard ordinance changes

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As of late, Bartow County Administrator Peter Olson has observed the local variance board approving several requests from parties seeking to convert their billboards into digital signage. 

There's just one problem, Olson said — the county code explicitly forbids them from being erected in Bartow.

"I wanted to make it clear to the variance board that they don't have the authority to grant something that doesn't exist," he said. "Right now the ordinance doesn't allow digital/LED billboards and I just think it's going a little far for the variance board to say 'We're just going to grant them one-by-one.' That's why I say we want to have an overall policy rather than have them done ad hoc."

That's the root of a proposal to alter the county's zoning ordinance concerning billboards, which will be presented for Commissioner Steve Taylor's approval or rejection at a hearing scheduled Sept. 19 at the Frank Moore Administration and Judicial Center at 135 W. Cherokee Ave. at  10 a.m.

"A variance shall not be granted to increase the maximum area of signs as permitted in a zoning district, nor the maximum number of signs," the amendment draft reads. "A variance shall not be granted to approve a billboard nor to convert an existing sign to electronic signage."

Since the aim of the ordinance amendment is to maintain the status quo, Olson said the proposal could be construed as a "moratorium" measure, to a certain extent. But then again, considering the county code bars the erection of any signage larger than 300 square feet — when the industry standard for billboard sizes is about 572 square feet — within Bartow, Olson said it stands to reason that such a "moratorium" has already been in place locally for quite some time.

The thorny part from a legal perspective, he said, is that while the ordinance clearly prevents new billboards from going up in the county, there's still some ambiguity as to what the owners of older billboards built prior to the countywide "moratorium" are allowed to do with their signage.

"We have a lot that are out there that are grandfathered in from the days before the sign restrictions got toughened," he said. "A lot of folks are interested in converting to digital billboards, and you've been seeing that happening some in the City of Cartersville."

Things came to a head after a variance was granted for a billboard near Tennessee Street and Felton Road.

"A bunch of people with sign interests came to that hearing and indicated 'We're fixing to file 20 or more applications to convert all these signs over the county,'" Olson said. "We're trying to work with the billboard industry folks to come up with a fair and reasonable solution — we don't want to open the doors and have a stampede at the courthouse and have everybody running in trying to be the first to convert."

And potential billboard owners would have a pretty big incentive to get their paperwork approved first, as Olson explained. Per Georgia Department of Transportation regulations, he said about 5,000 feet is required as a buffer between digital sign faces. 

"The first one to get one blocks people on either side of them, so we're trying to come up with a way that's reasonable to allow some digital signage but address the concerns of existing property owners and the citizens," he said.

However, that's not to say Commissioner Taylor isn't receptive to the idea of allowing some digital signage throughout the county. 

"I think he agrees that it is more attractive and not unreasonable," Olson said. "And a lot of people agree with that … they don't get faded, the graphics stay sharp, etcetera."

A potential "fix" to the situation, Olson said, is copying the approach taken by counties like Cobb and Forsyth.

"I have been told they have kind of a 'trade-in' system where you trade in three or four signs to get a digital sign," he said. "Which still works out economically for the billboard owners, because instead of having six or eight static faces, they can get eight to 10 flips off each sign — so they can get more revenue even though they have less signage."

Regardless, Olson said any new signage that emerges within Bartow won't be finding their way into any residential areas.

"We're just talking about the Highway 41 corridor, Highway 20, I-75, just the major busy roads," he said. "Stay tuned — in the next several months we'll be coming forward with some kind of an amendment to authorize some additional digital signage."