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Sign ordinance much-discussed topic at planning board meeting

Proposed changes to the county’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 ELAC’s work with the county.
“We’ve been discussing the sign issue for the past two years,” 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.
“There’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,” 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 he’s received 30 statements from business owners that their signs have “been there since the mid-1980s.”
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.
“This is a very important change that will cause some very hard feelings,” he said. “Be aware that this is going to raise some eyebrows.”
Under the change, businesses that once fell under the grandfather clause would have one year to come into compliance with the sign ordinance.
“One year is too long to give business owners time to change their signs,” said planning board vice-chairman John Pagel. “Six months is all they really need.”
Planning board member Junior Howard agreed.
“Even though they’ve had the past 13 years or so, they can’t complain about being given another year to change or eliminate their signs,” he said.
Planning board chairman Dean Lutz asked Hawkins if the zoning department could handle enforcement.
“We think we can, eventually, although we’re stretched pretty thin,” said Hawkins.
The problem, Hawkins said, is the perception that if one business has a certain sign, why can’t another one.
Atkins and planning board member Darrell Harkey once handled enforcement 12 years ago.
“We’d tell business owners they weren’t in compliance and they’d tell us to take them to court,” he said.
Elimination of the grandfather clause, Wulfhorst said, would make some business owners’ wishes come true.
“They are going to be the ones to have problems from a legal standpoint,” he said.
Business owner Jerry Earnest isn’t concerned about the fact that county commissioners are scheduled to tackle this issue early next year. He’s worried about enforcement, especially without the grandfather clause.
“If we don’t have someone to enforce these laws, what we’re doing here now doesn’t mean a thing,” he said.
Harkey said compliance is not going to be a major issue.
“This ordinance will be the same as the junk car ordinance. We had 95 percent compliance and only five percent that did not,” 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.
“It now gives Lincoln County backbone,” 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.
“What we were trying to do is give you a picture of what we’re talking about,” said Johnson.
One place of particular interest to both the planning board was the entrances and exits to gas stations.
“People have told me these signs pose safety issues for motorists trying to get out on the road,” Johnson said.
Harkey agreed with Johnson.
“It’s hard to see pulling out of some of these places along N.C. 16,” he said.
DiPento attributed the increasing number of signs to “one upsmanship” by business owners in Denver.
“People, over time, have tried to outdo each other sign-wise,” he said. “There are people, however, that are trying to do the right thing.
“Smaller businesses especially are trying to get their money’s worth out of the $200 sign permit fee and N.C. 16’s getting more cluttered.”
Hawkins and Lutz have said that Lincoln County commissioners may hear the proposed sign ordinance changes at the Jan. 9 meeting.
by Jon Mayhew

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