Senior Planning Manager Tracy Hester talks with members of a city of Albany sign task force about the city’s sign ordinance during a task force meeting Thursday. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — As the city of Albany considers a tweaking of its existing sign ordinance, a number of small business owners took the opportunity to express their concerns to members of a sign task force that met for the third time Thursday morning.
It was perhaps comments by Short & Paulk Supply Co. President Jay Short that summed up the feelings of the business owners.
“When you write these ordinances, you write them in black and white,” Short said. “But there’s a lot of gray area.”
It was that gray area, what Short later called “a need for common sense,” that was on the minds of attendees of the meeting, called to discuss various elements of the city’s sign ordinance and perhaps recommend changes that will be sent to the Albany City Commission for consideration.
It was city/county Planning Director Paul Forgey who offered an answer to Short and other business owners’ concerns on behalf of the city.
“I understand what you’re saying, but we have to consider that ‘common sense’ is not common,” Forgey said. “What may make perfect sense to one individual may not to another. That’s why we have community standards.”
Businesswoman and Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher said she’d had a recent conversation with the representative of a national chain who was in Albany to determine if the company should close one of its franchises in the city.
“This person told me their primary concern is signage,” Fletcher said. “Because they’re a little farther off the road than some businesses, people are passing them by.”
Forgey told the Ward III commissioner there is enough flexibility in the city’s existing sign ordinance to offer some hope of relief for the business.
“If we can do anything that would help a business that’s flagging and in danger of closing, we’ll bend the rules as much as we can,” Forgey said.
Senior Planning Manager Tracy Hester, who has handled administration of the city’s sign ordinance for the past 18 years, said business owners and the public should be aware that the primary concern of city leaders is to “do what’s best for the community.”
“We are looking for community standards that best serve this community,” he said. “We have our own unique concerns, and they’re different than Leesburg’s or Hilton Head’s or Sylvester’s or anybody else’s. That’s where our focus must be.”
Fletcher said the apparent disparity in which the sign ordinance is enforced is a concern she’s heard from a number of business owners.
“I don’t think there are many business owners who are disappointed in our sign ordinance,” she said. “Certainly each individual business would like to see small tweaks that pertain to their business. But what they all want to see is clear enforcement of the ordinance. They tell us, as business people, that we must follow A, B and C, and we do that, even though we might be struggling. Then we see an event like Albany State’s homecoming where city leaders are among the people selling banners that they tell us are illegal.
“That’s like a slap in the face to small business owners.”
During a discussion of billboard and multimessage sign regulations, a pair of issues arose.
Bart Holt, director of real estate for Fairway Outdoor Advertising, said his company would like to see the city allow multiple-message billboards on the busy Old Dawson Road retail corridor between Dawson Road and Westover Boulevard. City code currently allows such billboards only on Oglethorpe Boulevard, Westover Boulevard, Dawson Road, Slappey Boulevard, Jefferson Street, Gillionville Road, Ledo Road, U.S. Highway 82 and U.S. Highway 19.
Several present asked about the possibility of variances, which are not allowed under the current sign ordinance.
“The problem with variances,” Forgey said, “is the reality that it often turns out ‘If we like you, we’ll allow a variance; if we don’t, we won’t.’ That opens the city to lawsuits.”
Interim Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission President Justin Strickland said many citizens have a skewed perspective on local issues such as sign ordinance complaints.
“Yes, Albany has its issues,” he said, “but they’re no worse than other communities’.”