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Covington suspends enforcement of temporary sign regs

COVINGTON -- The Covington City Council, by a vote of 3 to 2, agreed Monday night to suspend enforcement of the temporary sign ordinance until it can be revisited.

A committee of three council members -- Keith Dalton, Chris Smith and Hawnethia Williams -- took a second look at the sign ordinance following comments from a citizen at the last council meeting indicating it could be hurting non-profits. The committee came back to the council with the recommendation that enforcement of a section of the ordinance be temporarily suspended, although committee member Williams, along with Councilwoman Janet Goodman, ended up opposing the motion. Williams said during the meeting she was having second thoughts about the suspension. Councilwoman Ocie Franklin was also initially opposed, but once a deadline of March 31, 2013, was added to have a new ordinance in place, she approved the motion. Councilman Mike Whatley attended the meeting but left early and was not present for the vote.

Former Mayor Kim Carter spoke against the temporary suspension of enforcement. The updated sign ordinance was passed late in her term in office, and she reminded the council that it had an in-depth study conducted, spent more than six months hashing out details and hired a specialized sign attorney to help craft the ordinance, which has been in place now about a year.

"I would just like to implore you to really give it time to work. We just now started to enforce it. You will always hear comments whenever you enforce a new law," she said.

The council only voted to suspend enforcement of the section of the ordinance regulating temporary signs -- all other sections of the ordinance will continue to be enforced.

Temporary signs must be attached to buildings under the new ordinance, and require a permit. They can also only be issued a maximum of five times per calendar year for 30 consecutive days. Two back-to-back permits can be issued for a maximum of 60 consecutive days, and after that, 30 days must pass before another permit is issued.

The exception is downtown Covington, where temporary signs can be displayed for one period of 14 days and another 14 days must pass before another permit is issued. The permit fee is a flat $25 per year regardless of how many permits are issued.

Brian Burgoyne, vice president of loans at Newton Federal Bank, a business that allows nonprofits to place signs advertising upcoming events or services on its front lawn, said at the council's Oct. 15 meeting that the city's sign ordinance impacts the bank's ability to provide free advertisement for nonprofits.

The regulations mean that only five nonprofits per year can use Newton Federal's site and "there are a whole lot more than that out there," Burgoyne said. Operation Sandbox, a charity that mails care packages to soldiers overseas, and Steeplechase, a 5K hosted by First United Methodist Church, recently had to remove their signs after being notified by the city's inspector they were in violation of the ordinance, because the signs were not attached to the building, he said.

Carter said the $25 per year permit fee for temporary signs is not unreasonable, adding that Newton Federal would likely be happy to pay that fee to allow nonprofits to advertise on its site.

Councilman Chris Smith said the city's legal team advised that the city can't make an exception of enforcement solely for nonprofits.

Smith said he wasn't happy with the wording of the ordinance to begin with and, "I think it's punishing more than helping people."

An initial motion to suspend enforcement was denied 3 to 2 but when the deadline to have a new ordinance in place by March 31 was added, the motion passed 3 to 2.

The city revamped its sign ordinance last year to address public complaints and complaints from business owners related to temporary signs. City officials said the goal of the new regulations is to allow property owners to display messages in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.