BY SARAH R. GREGORY
Following discussion, the Greeneville Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted unanimously Friday to delay action on proposed changes to the town's sign ordinance.
Board members voted in favor of the sign ordinance changes on first reading following a public hearing during the board's last meeting, held in December.
A second and final reading was on the agenda for Friday's meeting, but after discussion that included comments from some local auction company and sign company representatives, the matter was tabled.
Alderman Sarah Webster suggested the issue be taken up at a future meeting, when the town's attorney, Ron Woods, could be present to explain the legal issues surrounding some suggested changes.
The changes that appeared to be of most concern to those who spoke Friday centered around off-premise signs, particularly those placed in public right-of-ways.
Under the existing ordinance, auction companies have been allowed to place off-premise signs in public right-of-ways to direct potential customers to sales.
The proposed changes would remove that privilege, which is not granted to other types of businesses.
Greeneville Building Official Jeff Woods said he has been working on changes to the sign ordinance that would allow businesses to use additional signage on their own premises.
Any time an ordinance is updated, he added, the town's attorney reviews it to ensure that there are no liability issues that would result in legal problems for the town.
"This was something that came out at that time -- the auction signs, and where they could locate these signs in public right-of-ways.
"He [town attorney Ron Woods] recommended to me that we take that section out of the [existing] sign ordinance, because of the liability the town could have later on," Jeff Woods said.
"I think the ordinance provides more flexibility in some cases," said City Administrator Todd Smith.
"On private property and businesses, we're allowing some more opportunities for additional signage. So in one way, we're opening up the sign ordinance," he said.
On the other hand, however, he added, "When we deal with a public right-of-way, we have to allow equal access to all parties."
Smith said having a special provision that allows for only auction signs to be placed in public right-of-ways means the town has "automatically discriminated against every other business in the Greeneville community."
Restaurants, retail stores and other businesses, he noted, are not allowed to post the off-premise signs that auction and real estate companies are allowed to post under the existing sign ordinance.
"We've automatically created a discriminatory clause in our existing ordinance," he said.
Because the special privilege is discriminatory and because such permission contradicts another clause prohibiting off-premise signs, the town's attorney recommended removing that section, Smith said, adding that he agreed with making the change.
"Those two issues should be corrected in our ordinance," he concluded.
The proposed new sign ordinance, Jeff Woods said, has very few changes from the existing ordinance.
"We just made the additions to allow some more advertisement for the businesses, temporary on-premise signs, advertising banners at the road -- that was the major change," he said.
"The auction section -- that was the only one that was omitted from the existing sign ordinance."
Alderman Darrell Bryan suggested that he did not necessarily support making the change relating to auction signs.
"It appears to me that, on one hand, we're becoming more business-friendly by helping certain people advertise [more]," he said. "On the other hand, we're penalizing another area of businesses that direct people into town."
Bryan added, "I don't know if we need to be penalizing businesses, as tough as business is right now."
Some local business representatives, including Larry Jones of Greene County Land and Auction, Jason Carter of Carter Real Estate and Auction and Phil Wilhoit and Kimberly "Critter" Malone of Signs Plus, participated in the discussion with board members.
"Our signs are temporary," Jones said. "Never are they up 30 days, if that much. Most of the time it's two weeks or three."
Jones said he didn't think there was "much thought put into this," and said his business was not contacted about the change.
Carter said auction businesses currently pay a $100 yearly fee to place such signs, and questioned what the purpose in that fee would be if the change was made.
Those comments led board members to suggest that, instead of a blanket, per-year fee, auction signs could more easily be tracked if there was a per-event charge.
Malone said many businesses, churches and other organizations would like to advertise in the right-of-way areas as auction companies do and suggested the town erect some sort of structure at key locations and charge a fee to rent them out.
Mayor W.T. Daniels said Malone made a good point but noted that the town currently has restrictions on billboards, and likely would not "get into the sign business."
Wilhoit said he did not like portions of the sign ordinance pertaining to signs in windows.
"We don't look at a sign as per-window. The sign calculation is the total signage for the building [in square feet]," Woods said.
Wilhoit said businesses prefer using window signs because they are "cheap and help their bottom-line."
He said he understood the ordinance was in place to keep the town "presentable," but suggested that the new rules would "hurt small business."
Woods said the restrictions on window signs are not new changes and would remain the same in the new sign ordinance as it is in the existing ordinance.
DISCUSSION WILL CONTINUE
As the discussion continued, aldermen agreed that the best course of action would be to delay action until a later meeting when the town's attorney could be present to answer questions.
That would also give time, Bryan noted, to consider alternative solutions that may be more business-friendly.
"I would still request, though, that if there is an alternative proposal, that you bring that to the board at that point in time," he said. "We've got to be business-friendly."
"That's what we're trying to do. And we're trying to be more liberal [about the sign ordinance]. We're trying to give these businesses more opportunity to buy signage," Daniels said.
"We're giving, and we're taking away. There may be some alternatives that are more business-friendly," Bryan responded.
As the discussion concluded, aldermen voted unanimously to table the resolution adopting the updated sign ordinance and discuss it at a future meeting.