BY DEBBIE PAGE
The Troutman Planning and Zoning Board and the Board of Adjustment tackled several sign ordinance issues during late January meetings, including correcting an omission in the new Unified Development Ordinance. It also reconsidered the rejection of a church’s request for a digital sign.
Planning and Zoning Board
PLANNING AND ZONING LEADERS SELECTED
The Planning and Zoning Board selected Randy Farmer as chair and Karen Van Vliet as vice chair and approved the board’s rules of procedure for the new year. New alternate member Lori Eberly was welcomed to the board, and alternate Ray Welsh was elevated to a voting member because of George Harrison’s election to the Town Council.
DORYIAN PROJECT DELAYED
Town Planner George Berger informed the board that a rezoning request to build “The Doryian,” a 68-unit affordable housing project that could be financed by a state agency and geared to senior citizens and those in the work force, had been pulled from the agenda by the developer that morning.
Solstice Partners, on behalf of property owner Leonard Wilson, had planned to request rezoning of a nearly 3-acre parcel at the Talley and Lytton Street intersection from heavy industrial to central business to push the project forward.
However, the developers said a large number of Iredell County applications for the state grants made getting the financing this year unlikely, but they do plan to resubmit the request next year. Berger noted that developers had to go through two grant cycles to get funded for the Meadows project slated to be constructed at the corner of Winecoff and Eastway.
Berger said Solstice has developed quality housing in Cornelius, and he hopes that the group gets the financing next year. “If the project comes back, we’ll be in the same spot next year,” he said.
POLITICAL SIGN ORDINANCE SENT TO COUNCIL
The board also addressed an omission in the recent UDO revision. A September 2016 adoption of an ordinance regulating the size of political signs in various town zoning areas was omitted, and with primary and general elections fast approaching, town officials want to get the provision back in place quickly.
The ordinance limited campaign signs to 4 square feet and 42 inches in height in residential areas within the corporate limits of Troutman.
Commercial and non-residential properties and “gateway” roads (Highway 21, Wagner Street, Old Mountain Road, Murdock Road, and Talley Street) could have signs not exceeding 32 square feet in area and no more than 6 feet in height. All signs must be removed by seven days after the election.
No signs can be placed on town property, including along the Richardson Greenway, but Berger stated that no other limits were placed on where signs can go “because private property owners have the ability to practice political speech. That’s a guaranteed right.”
“We don’t want to infringe on the public’s right to express their political campaign opinions,” said Berger, who added that signs placed on town property would be removed. He said the staff does communicate with candidates about sign placement if problems arise.
Board member Mark Taylor, an N.C. Department of Transportation employee, questioned whether language in the ordinance dictated where the 32-square-foot signs could be placed, expressing his concern about line-of-sight barriers at intersections and traffic safety as well as NCDOT maintenance interference by signs placed along the town’s state roads.
Berger was open to adding such text to the ordinance and would procure NCDOT’s language sent to political candidates about signs in state right-of-ways to add to the text amendment if board members desired.
The board approved sending the text amendment to the Town Council for final consideration in February.
TRUCK MAINTENANCE ORDINANCE REPEAL CONSIDERATION DELAYED
Farmer rejected adding consideration of the repeal of a text amendment allowing truck maintenance and parking in heavy industrial zoning areas in the town limits to the evening’s agenda. The ordinance was passed by the Town Council in November.
Farmer was concerned that three new members on the board had no background on the issue and would have no real time to study the issue. He also was concerned that lack of public notice would eliminate citizens’ opportunity to speak on the issue. The board voted 6-0 to delay consideration until the February meeting.
Berger said he had planned for consideration of the issue in February, which he expected to be “not a particularly complicated one” since it was just taking off an ordinance recently added.
Several council members were present at the meeting. During a later public comment time on the political sign ordinance, Williams questioned why Planning and Zoning could not go ahead that evening and put the UDO back to the way it was before the truck parking and maintenance text was added.
Williams noted that community members could have public hearing input at the February Town Council meeting before members voted, but Farmer refused to reconsider the issue that evening, referring to the board’s earlier vote to delay until February.
The November zoning change was initiated at the request of a business, Gaines Express, looking to set up a truck parking and maintenance operation on a piece of property near the fairgrounds.
Council members afterwards discovered the property in question was much closer to the fairgrounds than they had been led to believe and was actually adjacent to Iredell County EMS station on Murdock Road where fairground event attendees often currently park.
Several county commissioners lamented losing this piece of property for potential fairground expansion and improvements, a project in which the council pledged to assist through a June resolution presented to commissioners.
Recognizing “the benefit of such a property and event space” in its corporate limits and the revenue and visitors that it brings, the fairgrounds resolution stated the town had a “vested interest in the future” of the property.
In the resolution, the council expressed its desire to see the fairgrounds become a “multipurpose venue and focal point of a heavily-traveled commercial corridor,” pledging consideration of both monetary and non-monetary support to make that vision a reality.
Board of Adjustment
BOARD DENIES CHURCH’S REQUEST FOR DIGITAL SIGN
After selecting Matt Weber as board chair and Kenny Overcash as vice chair for 2020, Board of Adjustment members heard an appeal from the New Life Missionary Baptist Church to allow digital signs in front of its property after Berger denied the request.
The town’s 2019 UDO adoption added an ordinance prohibiting “animated signs with lights or illumination which flash, move, rotate, scintillate, blink, flicker, vary in intensity or color or use intermittent electrical pulsations, except for time and temperature units.”
Current electronic signs installed near the Troutman Depot and at area schools and businesses were installed prior to this new ordinance and are therefore grandfathered.
In 2017, the church began raising money to replace its increasingly dilapidated front signage with a digital message sign to better promote church services and events, according to spokesperson Helen Harris. The church consulted with town staff at the time about the plan and received positive feedback.
In October of last year, after completing the fundraising and sign selection process, the church applied for a sign permit and was rejected because of changes to the town sign ordinance in the UDO revision passed in January of 2019.
Harris said the church had been operating on the information provided by town staff in 2017 and had no notice of the change in the UDO. She said the church was willing to work with the town and have the sign information be stagnant for long periods, changing text only periodically, with no flashing or distraction.
“We believe this adjustment will satisfy the town and still allow the church to publicize its events in an efficient, attractive manner.”
She noted that the sign would be easily adaptable to town requirements and still meet the needs of the church.
Harris noted that studies by researchers and insurance companies showed that digital signs were safe and did not increase traffic accidents because of their easy readability.
Harris also asserted that the words on a sign would have to move whether on a manual or digital sign. She said the word image would only change periodically at designated time intervals, not flash or constantly move.
Deacon Rydell Cowan also spoke in support of the appeal, noting that the town had “angered” him by putting a pump station in the front of the church property. After approaching the town about the pump’s location, the town refused to move it but allowed the church to build a brick sign marquee to hide the unattractive station. He noted the smell and pump alarms are also disruptive to church members and activities.
The town told Cowan and New Life reps at that time that if they could ever help in the future to come and ask. “That’s why we are here today — to see if you can help us and consider a digital sign in the two spaces where they would go.”
“We just want the opportunity to beautify the situation out there,” said Cowan. “It’s something we live with every day.”
The board could choose to take three possible actions, according to Town Attorney Gary Thomas: reverse or affirm Berger’s order of denial of the sign, wholly or partly; modify the order; or make another interpretation of the UDO passed in January of 2019.
After discussion of the UDO sign ordinance, board members said although they supported the church’s desire for a digital sign, the digital sign must move to change the message and would therefore violate the ordinance.
Weber suggested that the church go to the Town Council for a remedy because the Board of Adjustment does not have the legal authority to give the church a variance in the matter.
Berger said going to the Town Council and asking them to revisit the sign ordinance and make some changes would be an appropriate process for the church to undertake.
Before the vote upholding the church sign denial, Weber said, “It’s not that I don’t empathize with them. I understand, but our decision cannot be based on what we agree or disagree with. It’s whether or not George’s decision was correct in interpreting this ordinance.”
Berger said after the meeting that digital signs were specifically allowed in Troutman from May of 2014 until January of 2019 when the new UDO was adopted. Prior to 2014, digital signs were not referenced and so could be installed.
“There was no written documentation as to the council’s intent,” Berger said about the elimination of digital signs in the new UDO, which was revised and approved prior to Berger’s arrival.
Berger said he will begin researching a possible UDO text amendment to take before the Town Council with Harris to find a possible solution to present to the council.