Proposed changes to the countyâ€™s sign ordinance were tackled during the Nov. 16 meeting of the Lincoln County Planning Board.
According to East Lincoln Area Council Chairman Todd Wulfhorst, the meeting with the planning board was the culmination of ELACâ€™s work with the county.
â€œWeâ€™ve been discussing the sign issue for the past two years,â€ he said.
Wulfhorst said that the proposed changes in the ordinance were to target business along the N.C. 16 corridor between N.C. 150 and 73.
â€œThereâ€™s a lot of growth in that area and with the number of signs there the issue now turns to enforcement, especially with signs that were there before the original ordinance in the early 1990s,â€ he said.
Wulfhorst, an attorney in Denver, said that having the grandfather clause in the original ordinance is at the heart of the enforcement issue.
Speaking on enforcement and the grandfather clause, zoning administrator Randy Hawkins said heâ€™s received 30 statements from business owners that their signs have â€œbeen there since the mid-1980s.â€
Kelly Atkins, director of Building and Land Development for Lincoln County, cautioned members of ELAC and the planning board regarding the proposed removal of the grandfather clause.
â€œThis is a very important change that will cause some very hard feelings,â€ he said. â€œBe aware that this is going to raise some eyebrows.â€
Under the change, businesses that once fell under the grandfather clause would have one year to come into compliance with the sign ordinance.
â€œOne year is too long to give business owners time to change their signs,â€ said planning board vice-chairman John Pagel. â€œSix months is all they really need.â€
Planning board member Junior Howard agreed.
â€œEven though theyâ€™ve had the past 13 years or so, they canâ€™t complain about being given another year to change or eliminate their signs,â€ he said.
Planning board chairman Dean Lutz asked Hawkins if the zoning department could handle enforcement.
â€œWe think we can, eventually, although weâ€™re stretched pretty thin,â€ said Hawkins.
The problem, Hawkins said, is the perception that if one business has a certain sign, why canâ€™t another one.
Atkins and planning board member Darrell Harkey once handled enforcement 12 years ago.
â€œWeâ€™d tell business owners they werenâ€™t in compliance and theyâ€™d tell us to take them to court,â€ he said.
Elimination of the grandfather clause, Wulfhorst said, would make some business ownersâ€™ wishes come true.
â€œThey are going to be the ones to have problems from a legal standpoint,â€ he said.
Business owner Jerry Earnest isnâ€™t concerned about the fact that county commissioners are scheduled to tackle this issue early next year. Heâ€™s worried about enforcement, especially without the grandfather clause.
â€œIf we donâ€™t have someone to enforce these laws, what weâ€™re doing here now doesnâ€™t mean a thing,â€ he said.
Harkey said compliance is not going to be a major issue.
â€œThis ordinance will be the same as the junk car ordinance. We had 95 percent compliance and only five percent that did not,â€ he said.
Attorney Kimberly Poe recently started a law practice in Denver and she thinks the elimination of the grandfather clause would help with enforcement.
â€œIt now gives Lincoln County backbone,â€ she said.
Recently, Denver Area Business Association (DABA) president Andrew Johnson and business owner Joe DiPento drove up and down N.C. 16, videotaping both sides of the roadway.
â€œWhat we were trying to do is give you a picture of what weâ€™re talking about,â€ said Johnson.
One place of particular interest to both the planning board was the entrances and exits to gas stations.
â€œPeople have told me these signs pose safety issues for motorists trying to get out on the road,â€ Johnson said.
Harkey agreed with Johnson.
â€œItâ€™s hard to see pulling out of some of these places along N.C. 16,â€ he said.
DiPento attributed the increasing number of signs to â€œone upsmanshipâ€ by business owners in Denver.
â€œPeople, over time, have tried to outdo each other sign-wise,â€ he said. â€œThere are people, however, that are trying to do the right thing.
â€œSmaller businesses especially are trying to get their moneyâ€™s worth out of the $200 sign permit fee and N.C. 16â€™s getting more cluttered.â€
Hawkins and Lutz have said that Lincoln County commissioners may hear the proposed sign ordinance changes at the Jan. 9 meeting.
by Jon Mayhew