About ten days ago the New Albany Board of Aldermen finally gave permission for a new sign in front of the almost new IMPC medical clinic building. The IMPC doctors submitted a permit application seven months ago, hoping to put up a new sign in front of their new building. They started seeing patients in the new clinic, easily the most up-to-date such facility in north Mississippi, on Nov. 1, 2017, nearly four months ago — without a sign of the sign.
How could it possibly take so long? That’s a question you would have to ask to the aldermen, but the following is what we observed from the cheap seats. Fairness requires us to say that what we see and hear in public meetings may not reflect reasoning and advice the aldermen may have considered in executive sessions, in discussions with one another and with their professional staff. We have no objection to those private or executive conversations. They are wise and necessary, and we do not join with those who think that absolutely everything about public business should be discussed only in “open meetings.” That said, all we can report is what we are able to observe.
Problems of the past sign ordinance
We attended a zoning board meeting at city hall on July 31, 2017, during which the board considered the new IMPC sign. It found that the professionally designed sign was in technical violation of the city’s “sign ordinance.” (It was slightly larger than the 2006 ordinance allowed and a portion of it was “internally lighted.”) Each member of the zoning board said at that meeting that the proposed IMPC sign looked great and was not in any way objectionable to them, but that it was forbidden by the sign ordinance. Because the zoning board does not have authority to grant exceptions or “variances” to the ordinance, the question was kicked up on appeal to the elected New Albany Board of Aldermen.
More than a month later, the aldermen considered the appeal at their Sept. 5, 2017, meeting. As with the zoning board, each alderman said the proposed new IMPC sign looked great to them, but they thought it violated the 2006 sign ordinance. They couldn’t allow it.
The city attorney carefully explained to the aldermen the circumstances in which they have the authority to grant a variance. Still, not one alderman on the five-member board rose to the occasion and moved to grant a variance. Sadly, this scenario was not an isolated occurrence. (See the link below for an account of a similar occurrence in 2015 involving some veterinarians who wanted to put up a new sign to replace an old one that was falling apart, creating an eyesore on Highway 30 West.)
First Ward Alderwoman Amy Livingston said at that September meeting that she and others were working on revisions to the obsolete, poorly written 2006 ordinance.
Hopeful signs in the proposed new ordinance
Since September, Livingston and the city officials and others working with her have put a great deal of work into developing a new sign ordinance for New Albany. We have seen a near-final draft of their work, and are happy to say that it appears to be a far better ordinance that the current one.
- It is much more rational and better written than the current ordinance.
- The proposed new ordinance updates the regulations to consider sign technology unavailable 12 years ago.
- It removes the Main Street organization from its sign-judging role, a duty that caused Main Street nothing but trouble, and which has created problems with enforcement of rules in the downtown area.
- The new ordinance also contains a section defining the rules for signs along Interstate-22. This is a welcome addition given the number of new businesses that have been built along I-22, with more to come in the future.
Concerns with the proposed new sign ordinance
We see only a few troublesome features in the most recent version of the new sign ordinance:
- While the Main Street organization is happily removed from its role in deciding what signs may be allowed downtown, the new ordinance provides instead for “designees,” appointed by the mayor and board, to pass judgment on such signs.
- The provision for these designees seems vague and incomplete: Are they to be appointed each time a sign is considered, or for a specified term, or for life? What qualifications will designees be required to have?
- This section needs more work. It seem to have the potential to create the same problems as did having Main Street play this role.
- Timeliness of official decisions may not be any better under the new ordinance than in the 2006 version. Nothing in the new ordinance addresses unreasonably long delays in deciding what will ultimately be permitted.
- The problems IMPC has had in getting a decision are more typical than exceptional, and do not appear to be corrected under the new ordinance. The amount of time the city may take in making decisions still appears to be unlimited. Business owners have, in the past, made investments in inventory, rent, and start-up costs and then been left twisting in the wind for months, while city officials wring their hands and defer decisions.
- There needs to be some specific time limit on how long the city can take in considering applications for new sign permits. One month from the time a proper and complete application is received at city hall would seem to give city officials ample time to make their ruling. If more time is needed, the board should carefully and publicly explain why they need more time.
- The main problem with the old ordinance has been its uneven, selective enforcement. Nothing in the new ordinance will make fair and even enforcement of signage rules more likely.
- Let’s face it, the best way for businesses to put up new signs during the last twelve years has been to NOT ask the city for permission. A great many signs, out of compliance with the 2006 ordinance, have gone up without the city even knowing about them beforehand, and the city has done nothing to force them to be removed.
- The old ordinance provides for a fine of $500 for violation of the sign rules. The new ordinance calls for a fine up to $1,000 a day — that would be $30,000 per month — for violations. If the city has not been willing to levy a $500 fine in the past, how can we imagine they would suddenly work up the nerve to enforce a $30,000 penalty in the future?
Alderwoman Livingston and those working with her have done a good job with what they have done so far. They have put a great deal of time, study and thinking into this important labor. We hope they will continue work on it until we have a sign ordinance that is not only fair, but more likely to be consistently enforced in a timely manner. We are somewhat cheered by the hopeful signs.
For more information about the New Albany sign dilemma, see : http://nanewsweb.com/new-albany-sign-ordinance-problem/ and http://nanewsweb.com/signs-of-new-albany-part-ii-selective-enforcement-poor-judgment/
The sad story of the veterinary sign discussion: http://nanewsweb.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=3114&action=edit