Mayor breaks tie on sign ordinance vote

COVINGTON -- Mayor Ronnie Johnston cast the tie-breaking vote to approve the final reading of an amendment to the city's temporary sign ordinance Monday night.

Two citizens, including former Mayor Kim Carter, who was in office when the current ordinance was adopted in 2011, pleaded with the council not to make the change, saying it would set the city back in its efforts to reduce visual clutter.

The amendment will allow one banner or freestanding sail sign per property, free of charge, at a size of up to 16 square feet. The sign can remain up throughout the year and change to advertise different messages of sales, without obtaining a permit from the city.

Councilmen Mike Whatley, Chris Smith and Keith Dalton were in favor of the change, while Councilwomen Janet Goodman, Hawnethia Williams and Ocie Franklin were opposed. Johnston voted in favor, saying the amendment would make it easier for code enforcement to enforce the sign ordinance -- essentially, because only one sign is allowed, it's easier to spot violators.

The city revamped its sign ordinance in 2011, requiring that temporary signs require a permit -- a flat fee of $25 per year -- and be issued a maximum of five times per calendar year, for 30 consecutive days, and allowing two back to back permits issued for a maximum of 60 consecutive days.

Carter gave a PowerPoint presentation showing tattered and unkempt signs throughout the city; she said she counted more than 30 violations of the sign ordinance on one drive around the city. Carter said business owners were not properly notified of the change to the sign ordinance after it was first approved, and that's part of the problem. Mainly businesses on U.S. Highway 278 were informed of the changes, and all businesses should have received a summary of what the law allows, she said.

The city spent much time and money, hiring an outside consultant who specializes in sign law to craft the ordinance, and council members worked to reach a compromise that was ultimately unanimously approved, she said. She asked the council not to throw all that away due to just a few complaints.

A committee of three council members -- Smith, Dalton and Williams -- took a second look at the sign ordinance following comments from a citizen in October indicating it could be hurting nonprofits. Williams said that while she was concerned about non-profits that could not afford to put up signs -- and were relying on local businesses to help them advertise, through use of temporary signs -- she believes the lack of upkeep of the signs is a more pressing concern.

Barbara Morgan urged the council not to take a step backward, especially while Covington is in the spotlight due to Baxter International and the recently announced film studio proposed by Triple Horse Studios.

"We are the most watched city in the entire state right now. Even some national eyes are on us. If we do anything to step back from the standards we have sought to impose to reduce visual clutter, I think it would be a black eye for us when everybody in the world is watching us," she said.

Planning Director Randy Vinson said the tighter the ordinance, the better, but acknowledged the current ordinance is cumbersome to enforce, and this would make it easier. Vinson said language already in the ordinance addresses tattered and worn signs and those not properly installed.

The temporary sign ordinance has been suspended for several months while discussions about a possible amendment have been underway. Enforcement will resume now that the amendment has been approved.

"We will begin notifying businesses right away with personal visits from the code enforcement officer. Enforcement will begin by the end of the month," Vinson said.