A proposed sign ordinance change is scheduled for a public hearing at 6 p.m. Thursday before the Columbia County Planning Commission.
Members of the planning commission met with the county Board of Commissioners last week to review the proposed changes ahead of the Thursday meeting, days after the county Chamber of Commerce board of directors released a statement that they didn't support all of the proposed changes.
"Although the Chamber appreciates the opportunity to help develop a new ordinance, several major concerns were unresolved regarding adequate signage on buildings, entrances and windows," according to a news release from the board of directors.
Chamber president Tammy Shepherd said members of the chamber's newly formed sign ordinance subcommittee and chamber officials met with county planning and zoning director Andrew Strickland several times to discuss recommendations for the proposed ordinance changes.
Shepherd said the meetings did result in compromise on both sides, including the adoption of the chamber's recommendation to allow wrapped vehicles to park outside their businesses in a legally designated parking place.
"The draft version stated that if they had a wrapped vehicle, they couldn't park their vehicle in front of their business or any legal parking space in their business," Shepherd said. "The ordinance said the vehicle had to be parked in the back or the side of the business, and couldn't be parked in front unless they were unloading or loading the vehicle. Although it's an advertisement, first and foremost it's a vehicle, it's a company car. So the county did come back and say that was OK, as long as it was parked legally."
Shepherd also said the chamber group agreed with several of the county's inclusions of temporary signage and doing away with the use of rope lighting and festoon-type advertising.
"You have to find that compromise," Shepherd said.
Strickland addressed the concerns raised by the chamber's board of directors.
"I understand that the chamber issued a statement that they weren't supportive of the entire ordinance. From our discussions during our meetings, there were really two sticking points," Strickland said. "Every other change they proposed we adopted in the draft. The two sticking points had to do with window signs, and then specifically, the sizes for freestanding signs for businesses."
The proposed ordinance outlines the allowable size of monument signs, which is part of the move away from the use of pole signs. Sizes recommended by the chamber were substantially larger than what the county proposed, and those sizes were left unchanged in the proposed ordinance's final draft.
The chamber's statement said that the sizes were "unfair" to businesses in strip shopping centers.
"The code is particularly unfair to tenants with fewer than 10,000 square feet, limiting their building sign to less than ten percent of the total square footage," the news release stated, adding that more than 40 businesses in Columbia County would be affected by the proposed ordinance.
In addition, the chamber raised concerns for the process for being granted variances for signs within the proposed ordinance.
"Any future signage changes must meet the new code. At last count, at least 40 current businesses' signs would not be in compliance with the ordinance, creating an unequal playing field for potential new Columbia County businesses," stated the news release by the chamber board of directors. "Variance requests will cost business owners a $650 application fee, plus the cost of time and resources to complete the paperwork package and the delay of up to 3 months to get the process through the Planning and Zoning Department."
Another issue is the allowable window space businesses can cover.
"The original and the new ordinance said no window signs," Shepherd said. "And we said again, you're shooting yourself in the foot, you're hurting business. So we requested as an organization, 50 percent window coverage for poster-type signs and 100 percent of perforated vinyl signs, and we asked for different percentages based upon different kinds of product."
Strickland said the county agreed to 30 percent of window coverage after the chamber's recommendation, which was an increase from the current 25 percent already allowed.
"We decided to keep our distinction, to make that 30 percent the max, regardless of the type of sign, because there really is no difference between a perforated vinyl sign and a poster window sign, they both serve the purpose of displaying information to the public," Strickland said.
While some agreement was clear from the proposed changes, the approval process for the chamber ultimately came down to all or nothing.
"There are things we compromised on, but there were still several major things we felt were still not good for business," Shepherd said. "Our organization, led by the board of directors, has to either support or oppose a document as a whole. So that's why we have come out and said we oppose the ordinance as a whole."
Strickland said the proposed changes are merely a starting point for making some much-needed changes to the current ordinance, which hasn't been updated in more than five years.
"Columbia County has changed in so many ways since then that the ordinance language and the standards within it didn't really reflect our community now," Strickland said. "We heard a lot of desire in the comprehensive planning, the community meetings and the Vision 2035 meetings, that the main corridors in the county deserved a second look at some aesthetic enhancement. Obviously there's more that goes into that, but signs are a piece of that."
According to Strickland, proposed changes to the ordinance were drawn from not only community input, but also the aesthetics of surrounding communities, including Cobb, Forsyth, Fulton and Greenville counties.
"Typically, what we hear from our community members is ‘Hey I went to such and such town and really liked what they had going on there, do you think anything like that could work in Columbia County?' So we'll at least take a look at it," Strickland said. "Sometimes the language doesn't fit how our community sees itself, so we'll kind of move along or modify language if we need to."
The proposed changes will be heard at the planning commission meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at the government center complex, building A, in Evans. After the public hearing, the changes will be sent to the board of commissioners, with or without a recommendation for approval from the planning commission. Two readings are required by the board of commission after that before approval.
However, Strickland said more changes are expected before adoption by the board of commission.
"To say this is a done deal would be inaccurate. There's still room for improvement, and once it's adopted, there's always room for improvement," Strickland said. "The ordinance is just words on a page that can be changed if they need to be. It's a fluid document that will continue to change."