BY SARAH R. GREGORY
The Greeneville Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved revisions to the town's Sign Ordinance on second and final reading Tuesday, but the vote was not unanimous and the topic could come up again in the future.
The revisions primarily serve to allow businesses additional opportunities to place signage on their own premises, but a long-time exception to rules against off-premise signs granted only to auction companies has been removed.
The measure passed 3-1, with Aldermen Buddy Hawk, Keith Paxton and Sarah Webster voting in favor and with Alderman Darrell Bryan voting against.
Action came after several minutes of discussion among board members, Building Official Jeff Woods, and Town Attorney Ron Woods.
The issue has been discussed during two other meetings of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen: once when a public hearing and first reading was held, in December, and a second time earlier this month, which was also treated as essentially a second public hearing.
At the Jan. 10 meeting, aldermen voted to table the matter until Tuesday's meeting, when the town's attorney could be present to answer questions about any potential legal liabilities.
COMMENTS FROM PUBLIC
Two citizens spoke on the matter prior to the board's own discussion and consideration of the measure Tuesday.
Nick Cannon addressed the board to speak about how window signs benefit his business, Auto Zone, on Tusculum Boulevard.
"Part of our livelihood is our signage," Cannon said, before telling the board that specials advertised on window signs at the business result in significant revenue.
A second citizen, Larry Jones, who owns Greene County Land and Auction, was on the agenda to speak to the board.
However, when Mayor W.T. Daniels called on Jones, he said he did not have any specific comments at that time.
Jones said he sought clarification from the town's attorney regarding the change that would no longer allow off-premise auction signs, as had been mentioned during the meeting held earlier in the month.
At that point, the board moved to the next agenda item, which was consideration of the ordinance on second reading.
"It's time for the board to do its job," Daniels said, adding that it was "time to make a decision" after an eight-month process of creating the revisions and consideration during three meetings of the board.
The town has a process by which individuals must be added to a meeting's agenda to speak, but there have been many times that Daniels has allowed for public comments from the audience, such as during the Jan. 10 meeting.
On Tuesday, however, the mayor indicated that the floor would not be open for public comment but only board discussion.
There were a few tense moments during the discussion, particularly when Jones, and possibly some others in attendance, attempted to address the board from the audience, but were not permitted to do so.
After the meeting, Jones told The Greeneville Sun that he still had serious concerns about the effect of removing the exception for auction companies.
Jones said that his business is essentially conducted off-premises from his offices and that even though his company uses other methods of advertising as well, he believes the directional signs placed in public right-of-ways are needed to direct customers to sales.
Ron Woods, the town's attorney, began the discussion by explaining that sign ordinances can create legal complications related to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The first legal question that must be considered when examining a sign ordinance, he said, is whether the regulations are content-neutral.
"We can't regulate what people have to say," he said, clarifying that sign ordinances must apply uniformly regardless of a sign's content, with very few exceptions.
In reviewing the ordinance, however, Woods found a special exception just for auction companies to regulations against placing off-premise signs.
"The previous sign ordinance has this exception in it. I don't know why it was in there," he said.
None of the officials present at the meeting knew the original basis upon which the exception for auction companies was originally established.
"Without a basis, that [exception for auction signs] is a regulation based upon content," which is unconstitutional, Woods told the board.
As Woods concluded his explanation, Daniels urged the board to make a decision regarding the changes.
As was the case during the Jan. 10 meeting, Bryan expressed concern that the change pertaining to auction companies was not business-friendly.
At the earlier meeting, some representatives from local auction companies, including Jones, were present and discussed how important they believe the off-premise signs are in directing potential customers to their sales.
"We're helping some businesses and taking away from others. If we're going to be business-friendly, we need to take care of everybody as far as I'm concerned," Bryan said.
"How do we address the situation of where you have to give equal access to all people?" Daniels asked.
"If you're going to allow one particular group to put signs in public right-of-ways, then everybody should have the same availability."
Bryan suggested that the board could craft some type of policy for off-premise signs that would suit businesses' needs.
"We can be business-friendly and come up with a policy to take care of it," Bryan said.
"To me, there's going to be more control [from developing an off-premise sign policy], and there's an opportunity to bring in more revenue for the town by people getting permits," he said later.
'MAKES MORE AVAILABLE'
Webster noted that the changes to the ordinance allow businesses to have more on-premises signs than under the previous ordinance.
The updates allow businesses to place banners on-premises closer to the street, to have up to two temporary signs on-premises, to have an additional 12 square-feet of window signage and, in most zoning areas, to have larger overall sign sizes.
Webster also noted that the revision treated all businesses equally.
"It does not pick and choose who is going to get that [opportunity to place additional on-premise signs]. If it meets the requirements, then those people get to have more signage than they've presently got," she said.
"I think you should be very careful to treat everyone equally, and I think we have more than one place in [the ordinance] where we do not allow off-premises signs," Webster said.
COULD COME UP AGAIN
Citing the additional on-premises signage for businesses and the need to correct an essentially unconstitutional exception in the ordinance, Webster made a motion, which was seconded by Hawk, that the revised ordinance be adopted as recommended by Building Official Jeff Woods.
Bryan reiterated his suggestion that the board consider an off-premises sign policy so businesses could utilize directional signs.
Daniels said that such consideration could be given, as the ordinance can be amended at any time.
"Anything we do is not poured in concrete," he said. "If we need to bring it back, we can do that."