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Sign request draws ire of Smart Growth

COVINGTON - A variance request by a property owner trying to advertise his tenants' businesses has raised the ire of members of Smart Growth Newton County, who say the request violates the county sign ordinance and comprehensive plan.

Jack "Buddy" Morgan was recently denied a variance by the Board of Zoning Appeals to erect three additional signs along Interstate 20 for his property at 10455 Old Atlanta Highway. He was also requesting that the signs be 10 percent larger than the 150 square feet allowed by county ordinance.

Morgan already has three signs along the expressway. The existing signs were grandfathered in because they were in place before the current sign ordinance was passed. Under the current ordinance, Morgan would only be allowed one sign per road frontage.

After meeting with Smart Growth proponents who oppose the variance, Morgan altered his request. He told the board Tuesday night that he would instead like to tear down two existing signs and replace them and alter the face of the third existing sign, and was no longer requesting an increase to the square footage of the signs.

Morgan needs a variance to rebuild the two existing signs because once they are torn down, the grandfather status is lost, according to Planning Director Marian Eisenberg.

But Morgan's new plan still violates the county's sign ordinance and the Gateway Corridor Character Area established by the 2028 Comprehensive Plan, which encourage an aesthetically attractive environment.

Prior to beginning the public hearing on the variance, Chairman Kathy Morgan disclosed that Jack Morgan is her brother-in-law. Because she has no joint business endeavors with him, the chairman said there was no need for her to recuse herself from the discussion.

Morgan's request has upset Smart Growth members who worry it could set an unattractive precedent.

Smart Growth President Jonathan Paschal said the Comprehensive Plan was approved unanimously by the previous Board of Commissioner after much input from citizens, all agreeing that county corridors should remain uncluttered.

Resident Betty Bledsoe said granting the variance could dictate the future of the I-20 corridor.

"I think if we grant this variance it will set a precedent for future petitions and we would end up like Rockdale. A lot of people always say they can tell a difference when they leave Newton and enter Rockdale ... We don't want to be another metro county," she said.

County attorney Tommy Craig agreed that approval could set a precedent.

"Experience tells me that if you grant the request, you are establishing a precedent and you will hear from it again," Craig said when asked for his input.

Commissioner Tim Fleming said there has been misinformation circulating about the petition, including statements that the signs would be billboard-sized. According to Eisenberg, billboard signs are typically 1,600 square feet.

Fleming pointed out that's much larger than the 150 square feet Morgan is proposing.

"We want to encourage small businesses to come to Newton County ... But at the end of the day we tend to hinder businesses from flourishing," he said.

However, Commissioner Mort Ewing said that while he is in favor of the two sides working on a compromise, he wants the board to remember the time and effort that went into creating the comprehensive plan.

Also, Morgan previously challenged the county's sign ordinance in 2001 and lost.

Both the U.S. District Court for the North District of Georgia and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the county's sign ordinance, Ewing said.

"I think we need to keep in mind what has already been done as it relates to our sign ordinance," he said.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson made the motion to table the issue to give the opposing sides time to reach a consensus. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Earnest Simmons, who said discussions between the two parties fell apart the first time around.

"Both sides have to understand when they're in discussions they have to give and take. Both sides need to redouble their efforts and get together and reach a workable solution," Simmons said.

The board unanimously agreed to table the petition.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.