Some issues, it seems, just will not go away. Revising and simplifying Swansboro’s rules on temporary or appurtenant signs is among them.

Swansboro Planning Board, for at least the third time in the past three years, has been asked to come up with a set of recommendations on temporary signage.

Commissioners rejected temporary signage rules submitted by the planners in 2017. Planners revised and resubmitted the rules in 2018. And again, commissioners rejected that recommendation.

In the most recent denial, “The board of commissioners cited their reasons for deferment being that the proposed amendment was too restrictive for businesses, it lacked clarity, and that the planning board had been asked to create regulations for separate districts,” according to the planning board agenda for Nov. 4. In supporting material prepared by Jennifer Ansell, town planner, she mentions some of the issues with temporary signs under the current ordinance.

“Among the discussion (are) concerns over feather flags, the allowance of 45 days for banners and other temporary signs, and real estate ‘open house’ signage,” she writes.

Because Ansell was unable to attend the Nov. 4 meeting, Chris Seaberg, town manager, presented the item.

“This is kind of an ongoing thing,” he said. “There has been a lot of discussion.”

Up to this point, the key to the rewrite has been establishing rules that are enforceable, according to Ralph Kohlmann, planning board chairman.

The town’s current rules for temporary signage are not being enforced because – staff decided almost two years ago – they are too vague and unwieldy.

When the town sign ordinance underwent a large-scale revision in 2005, rules allowed commercial appurtenant signs for up to 45 days in a 12-month period.

With businesses asking for these additional signs to be used off and on – on weekends or during holidays – enforcement is nearly impossible, town officials have said. Furthermore, types of secondary signs allowed must be clarified.

For example, town commissioners have generally agreed that feather flags create a hazard to passing motorists and do not want them allowed.

Complicating the matter further is the fact that Swansboro prohibits off-premises signs. That rule applies “open-house” directional signs, for example.

Under the planning board’s most recent proposal three types of temporary commercial signs are allowed. They include a traditional post sign, an A-frame sign and a building banner.

At the November meeting, Kohlmann said establishing that type of baseline is critical if the town wants an ordinance that is enforceable.

“Here are the signs that are allowed … if it’s not here, it’s not allowed,” he reasoned.

As the rules have been considered and debated, the business owners, the planning board and the board of commissioners have struggled to provide businesses in the town’s historic district options for signs.

Setback issues downtown – many of the businesses on Front and Main streets are just off the sidewalk – “knock out” most businesses from at least two of the signs available, according to Laurent Meilleur, planning board member.

The board of commissioners has suggested separating districts, according to Seaberg.

Business on N.C. 24 is different from downtown with different opportunities, he said. What is important is to “preserve the pristine look of the waterfront in downtown Swansboro.” And, he added, “We’ve got to comply with ADA standards.” For example, the Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits a sign blocking the sidewalk.

Christina Ramsey, planning board member, said that separating districts could be quite complicated.

“Is it reasonable to have special regulations?” she asked. “I would want to spend more time on that subject.”

Kohlmann said the planning board would look to Seaberg and Ansell for guidance on creating different districts.

Three were generally suggested, he explained. They include the N.C. 24 corridor, downtown and residential neighborhoods.

“The boundaries … are subject to debate,” Kohlmann said. “That’s a whole discussion in itself.

“We’ll have to see what Chris brings in for us.”

While Kohlmann admitted there is work ahead for the planning board, he and others on the planning board also believe what has already been accomplished is significant.

“The commissioners could work with the recommendation we had last time,” he said. “‘Here is a good starting point for getting the sign issue addressed.’ The board of commissioners is free to make changes.”

In other words, as suggested by Meilleur about two years ago, establish a set of rules and make change as it becomes necessary.

At least the rules as presented are enforceable, according to Ramsey. And they represent a significant amount of effort.

“I don’t want to lose all of the goals we were shooting for,” she said. “I think we accomplished that (creating an ordinance that is enforceable) and don’t want to lose that.

“I’m not really sure we can accommodate everybody.”

Brad Buckley, planning board member, noted the current lack of enforcement on temporary signage.

If a new ordinance is put in place, he added, “Who is going to enforce it and how?”

Seaberg responded to the concern by saying that more enforcement is occurring, even now.

The traditional post sign and the A-frame sign can be no larger than 6 square feet per side, under the proposal. There is no size limit on a banner.

Also written into the sign amendment is an allowance for a residential appurtenant sign, no larger than 6 square feet. Otherwise, the sign could be of any design. The town cannot restrict a sign’s message, based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that is often associated with messages of a noncommercial nature.

Not included in the proposal is any mention of vehicle signs, or the vehicle “wraps” that have become popular with businesses. The planning board had no interest in attempting to regulate that type of signage.

The town can control placement of signs. Swansboro does not allow signs off-premises: A business’ appurtenant sign must be on the business’ property.

As noted, that creates a problem for the placement of directional signs, such as signs directing motorists to an open house. What the proposal does allow is for a realtor to place an open-house sign on a property along with the for-sale sign. The open-house sign, though, can’t be of the traditional variety. It must meet the ordinance requirements in that it has to be one of the three types of nonresidential appurtenant signs allowed.

And, as noted, setback requirements stymied the planning board from separating the historic district.

For the two types of freestanding signs allowed, the signs must be placed at least 12 feet from the edge of the pavement on N.C. 24 and 10 feet from the edge of the pavement in other areas. The space is required for sidewalks and easement access.

For many businesses on Swansboro’s Front Street, that type of setback does not exist. A suggestion to reduce setback requirements in the historic district failed to garner enough support for consideration.

It was pointed out that a business on Front Street, while not able to use a temporary sign, could install an awning sign.

Under the proposal, there would be an annual fee of $50 for temporary signs, but no time limits, other than the freestanding signs are only allowed out while the business is open. The proposal specifies there is no fee for open-house signs or residential appurtenant signs.

Also written into the amendment is an allowance for a residential appurtenant sign.

It can be a sign that is no larger than 6 square feet but otherwise the sign could be of any design, based on the ordinance.

The town cannot restrict a sign’s message. Of course, that rule, handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, is often associated with messages of a non-commercial nature. An example of such a sign might be the “Thank you Jesus” signs that are found in various neighborhoods.

The February 2018 proposal also took into consideration signs other than temporary or appurtenant.

Under the proposed amendments, rooftop signs would not be allowed.

The rule, originally included in the 2005 rewrite, came about in the town planner’s effort to “clean up” the ordinance.

After 2005, rooftop signs were not supposed to be allowed. However, due to an errant application approval in 2010, the town commissioners decided to allow them by special use for two businesses, Sewell Insurance and a chiropractic practice that has since moved out of Swansboro.

The Sewell sign still exists but the chiropractor’s sign has been altered to advertise a church that is now in the building. Should amendments be adopted as proposed, those two signs would remain under a  “grandfather clause,” as long as they are maintained.

Should the business change, the sign could change.

However, if the sign came to be in disrepair or if it were destroyed, under certain circumstances, it could not be replaced. The exception could be that if the sign is destroyed in a hurricane, it could be replaced.

Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy@tidelandnews.com.

(1) comment

David Collins

This is a legacy of ineptness that the outgoing board will leave behind. Hopefully the incoming folks will have enough sense to listen to the various committees that have been directed to research and come up with solutions. Really, just how hard can something so simple be so hard? It is not, if you really want to do it. It is about reasonable and proper signage, it is not about how to build a space ship. Getting a bit embarrassing. Even a caveman could do this.

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