By DOTTY NIST
The South Walton Tourist Development Council’s “big blue” signs now in storage are seen by some as a solution to reported problems with Walton County’s community directory sign program on U.S. 98.
“We thought it was a really good idea,” said Pat Blackshear, county director of planning and development services, when the proposal was aired on Nov. 5 at a workshop of Walton County’s Scenic Corridor Design Review Board (DRB),
Blackshear explained that businesses located on roads intersecting with U.S. 98 had been complaining to county commissioners that the black-and-white community directory signs now in use were not adequate in helping motorists attempting to find their businesses. The community directory sign program has been in use on U.S. 98 for over a decade.
Businesses are allowed and encouraged to place signs conforming with the county’s sign standards on their own property, but the U.S. 98 Scenic Corridor Standards prohibit businesses from putting up “off-premises” signs, signs located on other property. Community directory signs, located within the county road right-of-way, are an exception to that rule.
In 1997, soon after Walton County Code Enforcement cracked down on off-premises signs along U.S. 98, the community directory sign program was established. Businesses and other entitites located on county roads intersecting with U.S. 98 were allowed to put up black-and-white signs, typically with the name of one business, subdivision, or other entity displayed on each panel of these combination signs. Construction and maintenance of the signs was the responsibility of the businesses/entities displayed on each signs.
Poor maintenance has been one complaint from the public about community directory signs. According to Walton County Senior Planner Tim Brown, other complaints on the part of businesses have been that once all the panels are taken, there is no place for new businesses to display their name, and that “people don’t see” the signs as they drive along U.S. 98.
“We’ve just got complaints of ‘people don’t know we’re there, help us out,’” Brown reported.
In early 2008, the South Walton Tourist Development Council had put up several kinds of signs in connection with a $260,000, 49-sign wayfinding signage project. Several months later the organization found itself under strong pressure to remove these wayfinding signs, which were criticized as “too tall” and “too blue” in color. Plans were announced to shorten some of the taller signs, and, ultimately, there was a decision to bow to public opinion and remove a portion of the signs, the ones identifying various beach communities on CR-30A. Still in place from that signage project, at least for the time being, are “gateway” signs at entrance points to the county and directional signs pointing the way to various beach communties.
The community identification signs have remained in storage since being removed in spring 2008. When complaints about the community directory sign program on U.S. 98 surfaced a couple of months ago, DRB member Tim Norris suggested the unused community identification signs as a solution. Norris serves on the TDC as well.
The Nov. 5 DRB workshop had then been set up to look at the possible retro-fitting and use of the blue community identification signs and other solutions to the complaints about the community directory sign program.
A surprise to most people at the workshop was the presence of one the former blue community identification signs that had undergone a makeover. DRB chairman Paul Smith, owner of Smith Signs, had changed the color of the former blue sign to bronze, the same color commonly used for traffic signal mast arms and other roadway items. The sign also featured reflective metallic lettering on one of the panels.
There had been previous statements by the TDC that the color of the signs could not be changed. This was apparently not the case, but according to Smith’s comments to the “Beach Breeze,” changing the color took considerable effort. He said the work on the one sign was an all-day job for his shop, and that eight coats of paint were required. Smith also said the new paint should wear well, subject to maintenance on the signs.
TDC Executive Director Sonny Mares told the DRB members that the TDC would be “certainly interested” in providing signs to be used as community directory signs. He said that approximately 25 signs of similar size would be available for this purpose. Mares said it would be his recommendation for the signs to be donated by the TDC for use as community directory signs in order to save taxpayers money.
“We are trying to be good neighbors to help the beautification of Scenic 98,” Mares commented.
He suggested “revenue neutral charges” by the county from businesses participating in the sign program to fund maintenance of the signs.
Apparently no representatives of the businesses who reportedly had been complaining about the community directory sign program were in attendance at the Nov. 5 workshop. The only comment from attendees was provided by Mary Nielsen, who was against the community directory sign program in general, and Maria Sassano, who said she did not want any of the signs rejected for CR-30A placed on Scenic Gulf Drive. Sassano said that as a Scenic Gulf Drive resident she would find that “very offensive.”
DRB members responded that this proposal is for U.S. 98, not Scenic Gulf Drive.
Nielsen called the black-and-white community directory sign near her home on CR-393 “an ugly thing to look at.”
She found the repainted bronze sign “more aesthetically pleasing,” but questioned whether the county should be “in the advertising business” for businesses. Nielsen added that in her opinion, with today’s tools of the phone book, the Internet and GPS, there is no legitimate reason why a business cannot be located simply with a sign in place in front of it.
“I think the government should get out of private enterprise,” Nielsen summarized. “I think everyone in this day and age can find what they’re looking for.”
“I tend to agree with Ms. Nielsen,” responded DRB member Bob Johnson. “Do we want to keep them there?” he asked regarding the community directory signs, “I’d almost like to toss that back to the board of county commissioners.”
DRB member Tim Norris pointed out that not all drivers have GPS.
DRB member Sue Grill wondered who would coordinate placement of the signs and maintain them. “There’s a lot of money involved,” she said.
Blackshear suggested that the money question be posed to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), along with a recommendation by the DRB that the proposed replacement signs would be preferable to the current community directory signs.
Johnson then proposed a motion that the retro-fitted TDC signs “would be a satisfactory replacement” for the current community directory signs. That motion was approved 5-0 by all DRB members in attendance.
Blackshear stated her intent to bring the issue before the BCC at a future meeting for consideration.
THIS RETIRED community identification sign, which had been part of the TDC’s wayfinding signage project, has a new look with eight coats of bronze paint and reflective metal lettering. Dozens of signs that were once part of the TDC signage project are now in storage. There is now a proposal for such a makeover of some of these signs to serve a new use as community directory signs on U.S. 98. “We thought it was a really good idea,” said Pat Blackshear, county director of planning and development services, when the proposal was approved on Nov. 5 at a workshop of Walton County’s Scenic Corridor Design Review Board (DRB). Blackshear stated her intent to bring the issue before the BCC at a future meeting for consideration. (Photo by Dotty Nist)