By DOTTY NIST
Ordinances applying to the county’s scenic corridors will be moving forward to a second public hearing at which a final decision on the ordinances may take place.
The ordinances were discussed at a May 20 public hearing at which the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) voted unanimously to move the ordinances forward, following much public input. The meeting took place at the South Walton Annex.
One of the proposals was the Scenic Corridor Outdoor Display Ordinance, which applies to the U.S. 98/U.S. 331 Scenic Corridor in south Walton County.
Currently the code standards for that corridor prohibit businesses from displaying merchandise in an unscreened manner, with the exception of live plants. The proposed ordinance would allow unscreened displays under certain conditions below a structure that is part of the front facade of the building. The ordinance would set size limits for displays and structures. Permits would be required for outdoor display areas and for new structures to house displays.
Mac Carpenter, Walton County planning manager, commented that in formulating the ordinance, staff had worked closely with the Scenic Corridor Association and the business community to arrive at a proposal that would provide relief for businesses while meeting the scenic corridor intent of reducing roadside clutter.
Resident Mary Nielson expressed the hope that, if approved, the ordinance would be “officially and wholeheartedly enforced.” She suggested a public notification to businesses of the adoption of the ordinance.
“We will certainly enforce this,” said Wayne Dyess, county planning and development services director. Dyess later clarified that, upon approval, the ordinance would be enforced in a proactive manner, as well as through the complaint procedure.
Dyess envisioned a series of notifications to business owners about the ordinance.
Representing the Scenic Corridor Association, a private organization supporting the design standards for the U.S. 98/U.S. 331 Scenic Corridor, Leigh Moore expressed support of the ordinance. She described the proposal as well written and in keeping with the intent of the corridor. While there had been suggestions for taller displays, Moore said the corridor association would favor a height limit of seven feet for displays.
Tom Waldrop of the Electric Cart Company, a longtime advocate of the county relaxing restrictions on outdoor display of merchandise on the scenic corridor, also commented. Waldrop noted that business owners had been dealing with this challenge “for six years.” He said he believed that the proposal would be “palatable” to the business community.
After a vote to move the proposal forward to the second required public hearing, the commissioners took up three ordinances related to sandwich board signs.
The use of sandwich board signs by businesses is widespread in south Walton County, particularly along CR-30A. However, according to Dyess, county code does not provide for these signs.
The three ordinances under consideration would provide for businesses to use sandwich board signs under certain conditions along the U.S. 98/U.S. 331 Scenic Corridor in south Walton County, along the CR-30A and Scenic Gulf Drive scenic corridors, and along other roads, respectively. As drafted, the ordinances set the same conditions for use of the signs in the various locations. The signs would be considered temporary and would only be allowed to remain while a business was open and only between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. They would not be allowed in the right-of-way.
Tim Brown, county senior planner, explained that the Walton County Planning Commission and the Walton County Scenic Corridor Design Review Board had both recommended against approval of the ordinance that would allow sandwich board signs along the U.S. 98/U.S. 331 Scenic Corridor. One of the biggest issues, he explained, was the high speed limit on these roads.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander said she would tend to agree. It was her opinion that the high vehicle speeds would limit the usefulness of sandwich board signs on these south Walton County roadways.
However, District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows brought up the possibility of sandwich board signs being used along sidewalks in front of businesses in strip malls and plazas along these roadways. She noted that in these instances the signs would likely not be visible from U.S. 98 or U.S. 331.
Brown commented that most plazas have landscape buffers that would block view of the signs from the highway. Dyess added that language in the proposal requiring that signs be placed no farther than 20 feet from the business entrance would prevent signs from being placed close to the highway in other cases.
The planners brought up the fact that the planning commission had recommended a change to the ordinance draft with respect to signs being limited to one every 150 feet. The recommendation had been to instead allow one sign per storefront.
Representing the South Walton Community Council (SWCC), Mary Konovsky spoke in opposition to the ordinance. She warned that enforcement would be “certainly a burden” for Walton County Code Enforcement. Konovsky continued that the SWCC objected to the increase in clutter that would result from allowing the sandwich board signs and potential danger from the signs to bicyclists and pedestrians. She raised the question of liability in connection with accidents. Konovsky also questioned how a business would be defined for purposes of the ordinance and what properties would therefore be entitled to a sandwich board sign.
Moore also expressed concern that every rental home could claim to be eligible to have a sandwich board sign.
On behalf of the Scenic Corridor Association, Moore echoed Konovsky’s comments in opposition to the ordinance. “We get it,” Moore said with regard to some businesses set back from in the corridor in shopping centers desiring to use sandwich board signs. However, she pointed out that in some parts of the corridor businesses are quite close to the road—and that their signs placed 20 feet from the business entrance would be visible from the roadway. While one sandwich board signs might not “seem like a lot,” Moore concluded, allowing one per business would have a big impact on the corridor.
Nielson echoed concern that the ordinance could result in short-term rental homes and condos being allowed to display sandwich board signs, since they are considered businesses by Florida Statutes.
Dyess responded that, as defined by the Walton County Land Development Code, short-term rentals would not be considered businesses. Sidney Noyes, assistant county attorney, commented that the LDC definition would apply rather than the one found in state statute.
A representative of St. Rita’s Catholic Church on Moll Drive off U.S. 98 discussed the challenge of letting people know the church location. The state had mandated the removal of the community directory sign that had previously stood at the Moll Drive/U.S. 98 intersection, which had listed the church.
Comander said she had been working with one of the members to pursue approval of a sign for the church through the Tourist-Oriented Directional Signs Program, a program of the state Department of Transportation (DOT). She was hopeful of success in getting a sign approved for the church by this method.
Meadows moved for approval to move the ordinance forward to the second public hearing with the conditions that one sign be allowed per storefront (rather than one every 150) feet, and that signs be placed no farther than 10 (rather than 20) feet from the business entrance. The motion was approved unanimously.
As discussion turned to the sandwich board sign ordinance for the CR-30A and Scenic Gulf Drive scenic corridors, Comander was critical of draft language providing for businesses located in one building or plaza to agree on what signs would be placed in front so that signs would be limited to 150 feet apart. “That is never going to happen,” she warned.
Comander added that she did not want to include Scenic Gulf Drive in the ordinance because no one she had spoken with wanted sandwich board signs there.
Meadows commented that one motivation to consider the sandwich board sign ordinances had been the challenge of code enforcement “chasing” these currently-prohibited signs. She was of the opinion that allowing sandwich board signs on a limited basis would likely decrease their number.
“It has gotten to be such a ridiculous rodeo,” she said of the code enforcement process for theses signs.
Dyess commented that the ordinance’s clear definition of what would be allowed with regard to these signs would aid enforcement. He pledged that the sandwich board sign ordinances would be proactively enforced through notices of violation, the citation (fine) method, and physically removing sandwich board signs that in the right-of-way. Chronic violators would be taken before the Walton County Code Enforcement Board, he said.
District 2 Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen observed that once people begin to be fined for a violation, it does not take long to get others’ attention.
Comander saw the ordinance as a way to support small business and not “lose the flavor” of south Walton County.
Meadows observed that CR-30A has become “a commercial zone” due to the recent proliferation of commercial uses along the county road.
“It’s no longer a sleepy little town with a two-lane road where it’s lovely,” she noted.
“Zero tolerance to me is more clear,” Konovsky persisted. She suggested research on what benefit, if any, is derived from sandwich board signs by businesses.
Inlet Beach resident Betty Letcher agreed, saying that the businesses on CR-30A are visible from the road, so the sandwich board signs are not needed.
Moore urged the commissioners to think of the large resident population who object to “visual clutter.” “We deserve some consideration here,” she told them.
Moore pointed out that some areas allow no signs and that businesses still succeed. When there are sufficient consequences for violation of the law, behavior is changed, she commented.
“People move here to disobey the rules,” Meadows observed.
The choice, she continued, was between a “scorched earth policy” or providing “some mechanism where people can have a sandwich board sign under some conditions.”
Brown pointed out that the CR-30A Scenic Corridor includes intersecting roads CR-283, CR-395, CR-393, and CR-83.
Meadows motioned to move the ordinance forward “as is” and to take more public comment. She added that it would be helpful to get input from some business owners.
The third sandwich board ordinance applied to the remainder of the roads in the county, most of which are in the area north of the bay.
Meadows was of the opinion that the proposed U.S. 331 Scenic Corridor Design Standards should address the issue. These standards will soon go before the planning commission and later the BCC.
Comander agreed that the ordinance should not be voted on prior to the U.S. 331 Corridor Design Standards being considered. She moved to table the ordinance for the present. Her motion was approved unanimously.
Scheduled for the June 10 BCC meeting are the second public hearings for the U.S. 98/U.S. 331 Scenic Corridor Outdoor Display Ordinance and the sandwich board sign ordinances for the U.S. 98/U.S. 331 Corridor and the CR-30A/Scenic Gulf Drive Scenic Corridor. A public hearing on the proposed Noise Ordinance, which would apply countywide, is also on the agenda for that meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. and take place at the South Walton Annex.
By DOTTY NIST