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Boro puts stop to sign variances while its new rules are drafted
Request to place 3-sided billboard at busy intersection triggers 6-month moratorium
SPECIAL PHOTO/City of Statesboro This photo, from the file provided Statesboro City Council, shows a three-sided Renfroe Outdoors digital billboard structure in Pooler similar to one the company has proposed to place at the intersection of Fair Road and Veterans Memorial Parkway in Statesboro. Since Renfroe's proposal requires variances and Statesboro City Council did not act on it last week, it is now subject to the city's six-month moratorium.

Statesboro currently has a six-month moratorium on granting any variances that would allow the placement of freestanding signs that would otherwise violate the city’s sign regulations. New signs that comply with the existing rules can still be erected.

City Council approved the moratorium by a 5-0 vote Nov. 16 on a motion from District 5 Councilwoman Shari Barr, seconded by District 4 Councilman John Riggs. Unless extended by the council, the moratorium will end on May 16, 2022, said City Attorney Cain Smith. The council previously ordered a thorough rewrite of its Zoning Ordinance, including the rules referred to as the “Sign Ordinance,” with the help of a consulting company, and that work was projected to take up to 18 months.

The moratorium action followed a hearing on Renfroe Outdoor’s requests for two variances as part of a plan to replace the billboard company’s two-directional, changing message board beside the Enmarket station on Fair Road with a new billboard structure 295 feet away. The new structure would carry three billboard-size LED displays facing traffic in three directions at the Fair Road and Veterans Memorial Parkway intersection. The site is an almost one-acre lot, now mostly covered by trees.

“The plan here is just to provide something that’s much more aesthetically attractive to the city, and the hope is that it will serve as a welcome sign for the city, something that the city can be proud of, and it’s going to be replacing this old, industrial vinyl, steel-framed billboard that’s there now,” said Matt Mathews, an attorney representing Renfroe Outdoors.

He spoke to the mayor and council during the sign variance hearing at the Nov. 16 council meeting. The council had granted Renfroe a previous variance last summer to upgrade the existing billboard near the Enmarket to a light-emitting diode, or LED, display from its current format, which uses a rotating prism mechanism to show multiple messages.

But the billboard company hasn’t done that because the opportunity then arose to purchase the parcel of land at the intersection, Mathews said. Under the original proposal, Renfroe had offered to let the city place emergency messages in the digital sign’s message stream. With the new proposal, the company offered to give the city one 10-second spot out of every 70 seconds on each of the three sides and provided an illustration showing “Welcome to Statesboro” as one example.


Now on hold

However, the proposal is now on hold, since City Council did not act on the requested variances – neither approving them nor denying them – and instead imposed the moratorium on sign variances.

One of the variances would be needed because the city’s existing rules allow only back-to-back or V-shaped, two-sided billboards, and Renfroe’s plan is for a triangular, three-sided structure, with surfaces totaling about 500 square feet. The other variance would bypass a current limit of 300 square feet, including both sides of a billboard, for a digital sign.

Statesboro’s Planning Commission, which makes recommendations but not final decisions, recommended approval by a 5-0 vote Nov. 2. Based on the planning board’s decision, the Planning and Development Department staff also signaled approval, with the usual condition that any changes would have to be approved through the issuance of a sign permit.

But the staff’s written report also stated that granting the variances would be “drastically beyond what would normally be allowed within the city limits under the current ordinance.” While acknowledging that City Council “has allowed for general upgrades to modernize billboards not placed in the historic district,” the staff report made further cautionary statements.

“This particular request is far beyond what is allowed in the ordinance in both scale, and size,” the same paragraph continued. “There are also concerns regarding the precedent being set by acceptance of this sign, as its location at an intersection already experiencing traffic accidents.”


Traffic concern

When Mayor Jonathan McCollar asked if anyone wanted to speak against the variance requests, Chief of Police Mike Broadhead approached the public microphone.

“Mayor and council, I’m not necessarily opposed, but you need to know that that is the highest crash location in the city, has been for several years running, and I’m a little bit concerned that the eye-catching  distraction  of this is just going to lead to more crashes,” Broadhead said.

Riggs was the first council member to speak.

“Personally, I think that’s too much on that corner, and I apologize,” he said.  “But that’s an intersection I drive through every day, and I just feel it (the three-sided billboard) is too big for there. … I agree with the earlier variance that we gave you the last time. I liked that.”

Barr said she had similar concerns.

Broadhead did not present any statistics on vehicle crashes at the intersection. Mathews noted that he and his client had not come prepared for this concern, after the Planning Commission’s favorable recommendation and the staff’s previous apparent recommendation for approval. But he said he believed the Renfroe company would work with the city government to address its concerns.

“They’re flexible with the designs so that we can hopefully alleviate your concerns … and are very willing to work with the city to come up with something that they’re proud of and  are willing to stand  behind and  put their name on,” he said.

City Manager Charles Penny said the staff’s original recommendation had been for denial but that the staff had adopted the planning board’s recommendation. He advised the mayor and council to think about whether the billboard structure represents “the highest and best use” for that corner.  He also reminded the elected officials that the previous month they ordered a rewrite of the sign ordinance.

Since that time, he noted, a couple more variance requests had been submitted.

“We don’t know what the rewrite of the zoning ordinance and sign ordinance will be, and we’re not saying that it’s going to be more restrictive,” Penny said. “But it  just seems like we’ve  had at least two  meetings that we’ve  had variances  for billboards that have come before, and I don’t know  if the intent is to get out  in front of  our sign ordinance rewrite, but  once this is there, it's there, and it sort of really establishes the precedents.”

Mathews said the timing of Renfroe’s new proposal resulted purely from the site becoming available.

On Oct.  5 the council approved paying the consulting firm TSW $130,000 to guide a complete update of Statesboro’s zoning, sign and subdivision ordinances. TSW had proposed an 18-month timeline.

Barr asked if a moratorium might give the council time to receive information out of the ordinance drafting process.

Other council members agreed, and they agreed to not act on the variance request, to avoid formally rejecting it.

“So, we take no action on theirs and it doesn’t limit when they can come back, but then we have to decide do we want a moratorium and how long, on sign variances,” Barr said.


Not all signs

City Attorney Cain Smith suggested the six-month sunset for the moratorium, and that is what the council approved. The moratorium doesn’t prevent placement of signs that already comply with the city’s rules,  only those that would require variances,  he said.

“It’s variances from, departures outside of, what we allow. For six months we’re not granting them,” Smith reiterated when phoned this week. “I mean, what’s allowed can obviously be done, just no variances outside of it.”
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