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Lee County mulls sign ordinance

LEESBURG -- During a recent Lee County Commission meeting, representatives of the area Libertarian Party registered complaints about the legality of certain elements of the county's sign ordinance.

Seems they were just a bit ahead of the curve.

Lee officials have been in discussions this week with planners at the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission to come up with a workable sign ordinance that will bring the county into compliance with recent court rulings about the constitutionality of such ordinances.

"The folks at the Regional Commission have already sent us a proposed ordinance, and we've gone through it line by line," Lee Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander said. "We suggested changes, and they're working on those now. Once they make the changes, they'll send us a completed proposal for consideration.

"Our plan is to have our corridor study group -- made up of members of the Planning Commission, the city of Leesburg and local developers -- look at it. If they approve, the ordinance will go to the entire Planning Commission and then the County Commission."

The fact that the sign ordinance in Lee County will look a lot like the one recently passed in Albany is no coincidence.

"Albany used one of the pre-eminent legal minds in the state to put together its ordinance," Paul Forgey, a planning director with the Regional Commission, said Tuesday. "But the fact is, what's legal now is actually a lot less complicated than it used to be.

"Basically, a government can only regulate size, location and lighting; they can't regulate in any way what a sign says unless it's determined to be lewd. You get into free-speech issues very easily when dealing with signs."

One of the concerns expressed in recent weeks by the Libertarian Party and others in the community has to do with restrictions placed on the amount of time political signs may be displayed.

"The state says you can't enforce a time limit on political signs," Jeff Sexton, a political blogger who was founding chairman of the local Libertarian party, said. "We've pointed that issue out and I feel confident it will be taken care of once a new sign ordinance is in place.

"But I'm also concerned that the county and city are going to make restrictions worse on businesses' signs. I feel that if a businessman is willing to pay for a sign to promote his business, he should be allowed to do so. The city used its sign ordinance to try and run the (Leesburg Barber Shop and Style on Walnut Avenue) out of town. I can't support that."

After voting to allow that particular business to keep an illuminated sign, with restrictions, the city placed a moratorium on all future signs until a comprehensive sign ordinance could be established. The county also imposed such a moratorium.

Alexander said he hopes both Leesburg and Smithville will adopt the ordinance being considered by the county once it is approved.

"One of the issues we want to address is better defining animated signs," the Planning director said. "Technology has changed so rapidly, we feel a need to get an ordinance in place to definitively answer any questions that arise. I think we're looking right now at maybe allowing signs to change every 10 seconds but doing away with the signs that scroll constantly.

"One thing I'm sure we'll address is taking out any parts of the ordinance that are not in step with state law."

Forgey said he expects the process to include opportunities for citizens to weigh in on the matter.

"I'd hope that public hearings would definitely be a part of the process," he said. "Something may come up during the discussions that we'll have to address. We don't want any surprises; we don't want there to be any question that we're trying to hide anything. This is an open process."