By ALICIA LEONARD
During a business sign workshop on Feb. 10, DeFuniak Springs City Council members got more responses from local business owners than could fit on a billboard.
In one of the better-attended meetings, local business owners let loose with some pent-up feelings over restrictions on how they promote their business and their relationship with the DeFuniak Springs City Council.
DeFuniak Springs City Planner Greg Scoville was asked to begin the meeting by going over past ordinances and condensing recommendations from the Council from previous workshops into the new proposed and “tidied-up” ordinances and regulations.
Scoville told the Council that the proposal to change the size of some signs would not affect any existing signs and would only apply to new signs if the Council passed the changes. “This is for new signs,” Scoville said.
The biggest changes in signs being discussed was that off-premise signs (including billboards) not within 50 feet of the Interstate 10 right of way would not be allowed to exceed a height of 20 feet, instead of the now 40-foot limit. Those within the 50-foot radius of the Interstate right of way would also be able to maintain their 200-square foot coverage, but the new change for off-premise would cut that down to 100 square feet for any new sign. Scoville said this was to reduce visual clutter, appearance of blight and bring off-premise sign size closer to the on-premise sign size.
The second proposed change was for ground or on-premise signs. In the C-1 district, the proposed changes are as follows, two ground signs not exceeding 64 square feet of total area where the lot or parcel has a minimum of two hundred linear front feet on each of the two street frontages. New ground signs may also not exceed 20 feet in height. Scoville said this change addressed the Council’s desire to provide the opportunity for larger parcels and those on street corners to have up to two ground signs. The maximum square footage for signs would not be reduced in this district and could only be divided up among the signs.
In a C-2 district, suggested changes were provisions for reducing the overall potential sign size from 1,000 square feet, down to 500 on all parcels. Scoville wrote in his brief for the Council, “This equalizes the sign rules for smaller lots in the C-1 and C-2 districts, while liberalizing the sign rules for larger parcels on street corners.” Change of ownership will not affect the “grandfathering-in” clause of these new proposals affecting new signs.
Council member James Huffman opened the discourse, “I’m concerned about new billboards and what the businesses may be able to place on those.” Huffman produced a newspaper article about a billboard in the Ft. Walton Beach area that had drawn citizens ire over a scantily-clothed female posing in front of an American flag and asked what could be done to regulate the content of the signs. Scoville said that he understood Huffman’s concerns, but he believed that the issue of what is printed on billboards may be a First Amendment free-speech issue that would be beyond the city’s control.
Mayor Harold Carpenter asked if there were any comments from the audience before the Council decided whether to put the proposed changes on the schedule for a first reading during an upcoming Council meeting.
Roger Leatherberry, of McLain’s Family Steakhouse, addressed the Council, “As a business owner, everyone in town knows where my business is at. My signs are to stop travelers and get them to stop in. That is the reason behind signs, is to let people know where we are, where our businesses are. People stop on the way back from their vacation all the time and say they didn’t even see us on the way down. We are trying to get people to stop when they come through town.”
Cathy Mosley, a DeFuniak Business and Professional Association (DBPA) member, concurred, “I know if you make signs too small, you can’t find a business and the signs are so small people almost get into an accident trying to find the store or business.”
Cathrine King, of Dave’s Music, told the Council that she and some business partners had been approached about selling a piece of property inside the city limits, but the potential buyers were wanting a conformation that they would be able to place a large billboard sign on the property before they could give a sold offer on the property. “You know there is just something to this that I can’t do with my property like I would like to and that kinda bothers me. It’s more and more restrictions, it seems to me, and I just wonder why sometimes.”
Greg Lathinghouse, of Triangle Chevrolet, addressed the Council, “I sat down with Don Harrison earlier today and discussed this issue. I do still wonder how all of this was formulated. I know you have had some workshops on the issue, but were local business people invited to participate in this process?”
DeFuniak Springs City Manager Kim Kirby responded, “We advertise all of our workshops and public meeting and they are open to all the public.”
Lathinghouse responded, “No, I mean were they personally invited to be part of the process?”
Scoville responded, “No sir, they were not. The idea was to get something on paper, to start the process. I don’t take any type of ownership in this document. I did try and rework this ordinance, so it would flow as an ordinance should flow. As far as the recommendations, there are legal challenges all across the nation right now, over the wording of some ordinances. I came to the Council and requested that I be able to go through ours and take care of those issues, so, we would not have any problems with things like that and bring us into compliance with our comprehensive plan.”
Kirby concurred, “We welcome our business input at anytime. Contact me anytime and I will be happy to forward your concerns to the Council.”
Lathinghouse responded, “The problem is this was formulated by government. This is where the problem is. In my mind, what needs to take place is a commission and appoint people from local business on that commission. You are working inside a business district, but you see it differently. You have a different agenda. When this was formulated, if business people were included, it would have looked a little different. If Don hadn’t invited me today, I would not have realized the meeting was tonight.”
Lathinghouse went onto tell the Council that he did not feel like the city had a pro-business agenda. “As a business person who has been doing business in this town for a long time, it’s unfortunate that I don’t feel like the city is for my business to succeed. That’s a viewpoint that is not altogether fair to you, but different situations that you run into when you own a business here gives you that feeling. It’s all about the way things look – please don’t interrupt that with balloons or signs or whatever it takes to conduct business. As time goes on, the downtown area will become something, I don’t know what. We can’t do the things we need to do to attract business. We pay payroll, and taxes and purchases water and gas from the city, but my ability to do business is hampered by the city?”
Kirby asked Lathinghouse if it was just the sign ordinance he was having issues with or if it was more than that. Lathinghouse responded that it was more a feeling he received that the city was not pro-business. “Most of the businesses I come into contact with feel they are fighting a losing battle.”
Carpenter told the audience, “We need to know what sort of problems our business are having, so we can address them.” Lathinghouse responded, “Harold, this has been festering a long time and I probably should have said something a long time ago.”
Ron Kelley, representing the DBPA told the Council, “I am willing to bet that not a single business-owner came to this workshops and said, ‘I’ve got too many signs, they’re too big, you’ve got to help us!’ This didn’t come from the business community. I know everyone wants it to look good and I do, too, but as goes the business community, so goes the town. The reoccurring theme in all the recommendations is restriction after restriction after restriction. You are making it tougher on business to do business. They don’t buy signs because they can’t think of anything else to spend their money on. The signs work and they are a necessity for business. In a marvelous economic climate, that would not be the smartest thing for a city council to do. In the current business climate, it’s almost criminal. I urge you to be very cautious when you vote to restrict business and the way they do business. “
Carpenter asked for a certain issue that restricts business owners. One audience member responded that they couldn’t put a balloon on a car antenna to advertise a sale. Another spoke of having to take down a banner that increased foot traffic into their business. Others told the Council that if they did not own the property their business was located in, they would be out on the street as a business owner during these tough economic times.
Scoville told the crowd that they had added a section where business owners could apply for temporary permits for banners and such in the new ordinance.
After more discussion, Councilman Harrison asked that the Council go ahead with the changes to the ordinances, yet work with the business community about their concerns.
Huffman told the audience, “We want to help your business. We always run into this, though. We have workshops and no one attends. Then when we have some type of plan put together, everyone shows up and has something to say. We need what we are doing tonight. We need citizens and business owners involved in their government process and we want to make things better for everyone involved in this process. So, I’m glad we are having this discussion here tonight and we need to have more like it.”
In the end, the Council agreed to ask the business community to put together a commission and to come back and work with the Council on the new ordinances before anything is decided by the Council. The next workshop will be held in a few months after the business commission is formed and ready to open a discourse with the Council over ways the city can help business people stay in business in DeFuniak Springs.