BY DEBBIE PAGE
debbiepage.iredellfreenews@gmail.com

The Troutman Planning and Zoning Board took the first step to solving an awkward electronic sign dilemma first brought to light in January by New Life Missionary Baptist Church, whose request to allow an electronic sign in front of its property was denied by Town Planner George Berger last fall.

The board recommended a Unified Development Ordinance text amendment to section 6.2.3 that restores the prior UDO language regarding electronic signs and that allows movement on “time and temperature signs, or Electronic Message Board (EMB) panels as part of a principal/monument ground sign that meets the provisions of this Chapter.”

However, if later approved by the Town Council, this change will not fix all the church’s sign issues. The size of the church’s brick sign structure, actually built by the town to cover its own pump station on the front of the church property, is a “legally-nonconforming sign structure.”

Also, because the V-shaped sign structure requires an EMB panel on each wing, the panels will not be one on each side of one structure so that both EMBs will be visible from one point at the same time, which is prohibited by the town’s UDO.

Berger said that even if these UDO changes are approved, the church would still have to return to the Board of Adjustment to request a variance.

However, Berger said the church’s sign likely meets “special conditions” required for a variance because of “the unique conditions that led to the construction of the sign structure/visual shield for the public sewer lift station.”

He did not believe a variance in this situation would result in “the establishment of a precedent allowing or encouraging other potential applicants to pursue principal/monument sign designs not in compliance with existing requirements.”

SIGN HISTORY

The town placed the sewer pump station in front of the church over a decade ago. In response to complaints about its unsightliness, the town built the 26.6-foot by 7.4-foot, V-shaped brick sign marquees to hide the unattractive station.

The inset sign structure on each wing, measuring 12 feet by 7.4 feet, was also substantially larger than the 32-square-foot maximum sign face area allowed by the UDO at the time.

The town told New Life reps at that time that if they could ever help in the future to come and ask, so the refusal to allow the sign surprised church leaders.

In 2017, the church began raising money to replace its increasingly dilapidated signage with electronic message boards on the pump coverage structure to better promote church services and events.

Church representatives consulted with town staff at the time about the plan and were given positive feedback.

In October of 2019, after completing the fundraising and selecting the EMBs it wished to purchase, the church applied for a sign permit and was rejected because of changes to the town sign ordinance in January of 2019.

Church members were unaware of the change prohibiting their plans.

APPEAL PROCESS

Responding to the January appeal of Berger’s EMB sign denial, the Board of Adjustment had no choice but to deny the church’s request under the current UDO, which 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, churches, and businesses were installed prior to this new ordinance and are therefore grandfathered.

Berger said digital signs were only specifically allowed in Troutman between May of 2014 until January of 2019. 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 of the elimination of digital signs in the new UDO, which was revised and approved prior to Berger’s arrival.

Board of Adjustment members said that although they supported the church’s desire for a digital sign, the digital sign text must move to change the message and would therefore violate the ordinance.

Board member Matt Weber suggested that the church go to the Town Council for a remedy since the Board of Adjustment did not have the legal authority to give the church a variance in the matter.

At the town council’s March pre-agenda meeting, Mayor Teross Young and council members asked Berger to find a timely resolution to the New Life Missionary Baptist Church’s request.

Berger began researching a possible UDO text amendment, but moving forward has been hampered by COVID-19 meeting cancellations until this month.

The Planning and Zoning Board’s text amendment recommendation will now go forward to the Town Council for consideration.

Berger has been in touch with church representative Helen Harris, who is willing to again seek the Board of Adjustment variance if council approves these UDO changes.

PLANNED EASTWAY RESTAURANT REZONING REQUEST APPROVED

Owner Travis Elliot requested rezoning of his .84 acre 124 North Eastway property from town residential to central business (CB) zoning in his quest to tear down the existing home and build what he described as a “mid to upscale steak house” seating up to 150 diners next to his insurance business on adjoining property.

Berger said the board could approve the applicant’s request to rezone as CB and build the planned freestanding restaurant by right.

However, Berger said the town’s 2035 Future Land Use Plan and the Strategic Master Plan indicate that the property, as well as those up and down North Eastway between East Church Street and Town Hall, are best suited for Office-Institutional-Civic (OI) zoning designation.

OI zoning “may consist of a variety of office, educational, religious, financial, and medical uses,” with an emphasis on service-oriented businesses to operate from existing houses and undeveloped lots to serve as a buffer to surrounding residential areas.

This OI designation would also require a special use permit from the Board of Adjustment to build the planned restaurant, which would give the town an extra layer of input into the building project.

In the CB designation, Elliot could build the restaurant by right and would require only the Technical Review and Design Review Boards’ approval of the site plan.

Berger indicated no preference as to which zoning the board chose, saying the restaurant would fit in either.

Board member Mark Taylor was supportive of the restaurant coming to Troutman but said, “Looking long-term, going to the extra step of OI would allow us to set a precedent for that whole three-block corridor so that we have a better selection of what’s going to be in our town.”

Taylor did not want to put an extra burden on Elliot but felt that it was important to have that “extra step to keep Troutman Troutman.”

After Elliot expressed concerns about having to return for approvals if plans slightly changed during building, Berger stated that a special use permit was not as restrictive as conditional zoning. In either CB or OI, the site plan would have to follow the outlines and restrictions of the UDO.

“What you’ve proposed to me so far looks like you’ll be fine,” said Berger.

Board Chair Randy Farmer noted that Elliot’s insurance business next door is OI, so keeping the zoning consistent in the area made sense and that as long as Elliot stayed in required UDO setbacks, construction changes would not be affected.

The board approved recommending OI rezoning for the property to Town Council so that the planned project could move forward.

TALLEY/LYTTON STREET INTERSECTION REZONING

The town council, with the approval of property owner Leonard Wilson, initiated a zoning map change to rezone the southwest corner of the Talley/Lytton Street intersection from heavy industrial to central business to make the property consistent with the 2035 Future Land Use Map.

No development is associated with this request, which is simply to remove a former industrial use of the property.

The council envisions a variety of office, retail, and high density residential uses for the area.

The board voted unanimously to recommend the change to central business to the council.

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