While, on one hand, New Albany and Union County are working to encourage economic development, an arcane city ordinance is having an unfriendly impact on potential new businesses.
We refer to the city’s restrictive and unenforceable “sign ordinance.”
The United States Constitution as originally written in 1787 and as amended 27 times, most recently in 1992, is about 4,400 words in length.
The sign ordinance of the City of New Albany, Mississippi, as approved in 2006, contains some 6,600 words, half again as long as the U.S. Constitution.
The sign ordinance and the uneven, even arrogant, attempts to enforce it have given several new businesses a sharp slap across the chops recently.
The latest such silly hostility was directed at the town’s only veterinary clinic, located at 918 Highway 30 West. The veterinarian who had operated the clinic for years retired not long ago, and his practice was bought by a group of three vets from Holly Springs. The clinic building sits perhaps 200 feet south of the highway and well below the grade of the road. The animal docs had an out-of-town sign company build a nice new sign to replace the small, crumbling, (and nearly hidden) ground-level one that has been there for years. The new sign was delivered: a nice big lighted sign eight feet high and twelve feet wide, large enough that it might actually be seen by people seeking care for their animals. Terrific, you think? You would be wrong.
The New Albany sign ordinance defines a sign placed close to the ground a “monument sign.” The ordinance decrees that a monument sign can be no more than six feet high and eight feet wide. The ordinance also forbids it to be “internally lit.” A sign can be lighted by spotlights, but cannot be made visible at night via illumination built into the sign itself. Whyzat? Because whoever wrote the 2006 sign ordinance thought it ought to be that way.
The city building inspector told the vets they could not install their sign. The city zoning board also ruled that the sign would somehow offend the public interest. The docs have appealed the decision to the Board of Aldermen, but, and here’s another wrinkle, they cannot have their hearing until the July 7th board meeting. Thus, the vets and potential new customers with animals needing attention will wait at least an additional month to get an answer from the Board.
We are aware of several other instances in recent months where people risking their own money to invest in New Albany businesses have been harassed by the sign ordinance, or its would-be enforcers. We have looked into two of those incidents.
In March of this year, an eclectic and well-planned shop opened in downtown New Albany. It features unique clothing and decorative items, specialty foods, AND an old fashioned soda fountain and ice cream parlor. The soda fountain/ice cream parlor was instantly successful.
However, before the shop with the soda fountain opened, its owner got a visit, not from a public official, but from a representative of a private organization. This individual opined that the shop owner must remove a small sign, built of ferrous metal and weathered lumber by a skilled artisan, because it depicted a rooster — that’s right, a rooster. The unofficial enforcer told the shop owner that because there had been a controversy in New Albany last year about chickens being kept within the municipal limits, the shop’s rooster logo would have to be removed from atop the building. There had indeed been a dust-up over chickens in New Albany in 2014, but at no time did the city board promulgate an ordinance that forbade a rooster being depicted on a business sign. Again, this advice that the rooster must come down was from and individual with no enforcement authority whatever. The rooster still crows proudly, but this idiocy gave the proprietor serious second thoughts about doing business here.
In a second recent instance of misguided enforcement, a second-hand store/consignment shop installed a clever sign that is neat and colorful, but was not made by a “licensed sign maker.” The store owners were told their sign was offensive, because it “looked homemade.” As in the previous case, this attempt at “enforcement” came from a private individual, representing a private organization with no lawful enforcement authority.
In both of the instances mentioned above, the person from the private organization was sent to bear the bad news by a public employee who, for some reason, chose not to do the work himself. That is dead wrong. The private organization sent to do this unpleasant work is Main Street. It is unfair to Main Street and its managers to place it in this awkward and unwelcome position. Public laws should be enforced by public officials, not shirked off to private individuals.
While we believe that any red tape created by any government- local, state, or national- should be looked upon with suspicion, and that the dynamics of a free market will always ultimately determine what is and isn’t going to succeed, we are not dead set against local government being attuned to having things looking good in its commercial districts. However, if New Albany needs a side ordinance at all, the city fathers need to take a critical look at the 2006 ordinance and how it is enforced. We will not attempt to drag the reader through all 6,600 words of this silly ordinance, but will point out a few of its more glaring flaws:
Enforcement is, and has always been uneven, at best. In multiple instances, enforcement has been hostile and unfair. Claiming to be acting under the authority of the City of New Albany, individuals from at least one private, non-governmental organization have visited local businesses and, without lawful authority, have presumed to “instruct” or “order” or “inform” business owners about what they can do, or what they must or must not do. The legal and political dangers of such actions are self-evident and need not much further discussion here.
A quick walk or drive around the downtown or C-1 area will reveal many instances of violations of the ordinance, such as: signs that are “Flashing” (112.03-10A); “Internally illuminated” (112.03.22A); “Window Sign” size and quality (112.03-8C and 112.03.22E). An ordinance that is not or cannot be evenly and universally enforced is inherently arbitrary and hostile to the public interest.
Words and phrases that are undefined, perhaps indefinable. The ordinance abounds in words or phrases such “good taste” or “visually attractive” or “conservative and tasteful in nature” or “aesthetic values” or “compatible with the buildings and environment” or “complement the historic character” or “oriented to a pedestrian scale.”
Causes unnecessary and costly delays. Consider that a business wishing to erect a sign in the C1 zoning area (downtown New Albany) is required to fill out a poorly designed sign application form, and must submit it “at least 15 calendar days” prior to the monthly meeting on “the second Tuesday of each month” to the to the “Design Committee of the New Albany Main Street Association.” The “Main Street Design Committee” is to submit its recommendation to the Planning and Zoning Commission, which “shall have 30 days within which to review the matter and issue their decision.” That means an absolute minimum of 45 days that the business owner must wait, and that is if the applicant has perfect timing. If he makes an application the day after the monthly meeting of the so-called “Design Committee,” he is guaranteed a wait of two full months before he can put up his sign and start serving customers.
Furthermore, how does it come about that the “Design Committee of the New Albany Main Street Association” has any role whatever in influencing what is essentially a political decision that must ultimately be made by the elected Board of Alderman? Main Street has no official standing whatever. They are a private organization, with no lawful power to govern anything.
Main Street does valuable work in promoting downtown New Albany. This is another way in which Main Street is drafted into a thankless and unpleasant job that hurts its effectiveness. They need to be left alone, allowed to do what they do well.
Local government needs to take a critical and thorough look at the sign ordinance and any other restrictions that needlessly discourage entrepreneurs from investing money in our city. Additionally, it is incumbent upon the government to ensure that only authorized personnel are involved in enforcing any regulations that are deemed necessary.
Good planning does not mean a long and rigid list of things people are forbidden to do. Thanks to that “vision thing” and much good work by many people, New Albany is in a truly enviable position for future prosperity. Local government must provide a business atmosphere that is fair and welcoming to all businesses, from small entrepreneurships to major manufacturers. Certainly, there are desirable and appropriate ways for the local government to direct the growth of the community. We need to work smart going forward.
More on the New Albany Renaissance:
Part II, Counting our blessings
Part III, Selling New Albany