memo-12-08-2015- 15

MEMO TO:           Mayor Barber and Board of Commissioners

FROM:                  Frank A. Rush, Jr., Town Manager

SUBJECT:           Community Information Signs

I have scheduled time on the Board’s December 8 meeting agenda to receive the Board’s feedback on a revised strategy for dealing with temporary signs placed in the public right-of-way to advertise special events sponsored by a public, non-profit, charitable, or religious organization.

At the August 2015 meeting, the Board agreed in concept to a plan to prohibit all such temporary signs in the future, in conjunction with the installation of multiple, Town-owned electronic community information signs that would be strategically located to communicate the same information in a more organized and aesthetically pleasing manner.  At the time, the Town was working toward a plan to install two-way electronic message signs in the NC 58 right-of-way near the Coast Guard Road / NC 58 intersection and possibly at another location in eastern Emerald Isle.  These locations would likely reach nearly every motorist travelling in and out of Emerald Isle, and were viewed as an effective replacement for the temporary signs.  This initiative was aimed at improving the overall aesthetic appearance of the NC 58 corridor, but also reflected a continuing desire to be supportive of the various good causes that rely on the temporary signs.  The Town would control the messages on the electronic community information signs, and would establish basic rules for which events / organizations may have messages on the signs, what duration, etc.

The Town later learned that NCDOT could not permit the location of the electronic community information signs in the NC 58 right-of-way due to Federal Highway Administration regulations and concerns from the outdoor advertising industry.  The Town may still install electronic community information signs, however, they can not be located on the NC 58 right-of-way, and must be on private property.  The 200 ft. right-of-way width of NC 58 between the NC 58 bridge and the Welcome Center, along with the fact that the Town does not own any adjacent land, makes it impractical to consider placing electronic community information signs between the NC 58 bridge and the Welcome Center.

The inability to place the signs along NC 58 between the NC 58 bridge and the Welcome Center has caused me to reconsider this initiative, and I am now presenting 4 options (including a recommendation) for the Board to consider to resolve this issue:

  1. Do nothing.

The Town would not install new electronic community information signs.This option would simply continue the historical practice of allowing temporary signs in the right-of-way, and the Town would likely continue to see temporary banners and other signs on a routine basis (some that are probably not offensive, and some that perhaps don’t look as nice as some might like).The Town’s sign ordinance would not be amended, and would continue to read as follows:

SIGN, TEMPORARY

A sign that is an advertising display constructed of cloth, canvas, fabric, plastic, paper, plywood, or other material intended to be displayed to inform the public of an unusual or special event sponsored by a non-profit, public, charitable or religious organization. Such signs shall not exceed thirty-two (32) square feet in area per display surface. The signs may be erected not more than thirty (30) days prior to the event and must be removed within ten (10) days following the completion of the event. Each such event shall be limited to a maximum of six (6) signs. Such signs may be placed in a street right-of-way; provided that the sign is placed in such a manner as to not obstruct driver vision of any vehicle entering a roadway from any street, alley, driveway, or parking lot.

This option has been tolerated by NCDOT over the years because the signs that have been placed are temporary in nature, are usually relatively small, and because NCDOT has not received complaints.  Technically, NCDOT could likely force the removal of such signs, but I believe they are unlikely to take that approach.

  1. Fixed banner posts managed by the Town.

The Town would not install new electronic community information signs.The Town would instead install fixed 4 x 4 or 6 x 6 posts with white vinyl wrapping at key locations in the NC 58 right-of-way, and the posts would be specially fitted to display banners that are sized appropriately.In theory, the banners would be more uniform in placement and would be secured better, and not be as much of an eyesore.The posts could be installed to accommodate two banners per location, and the suggested locations include:

  • NC 58 / Coast Guard Road intersection,
  • NC 58 across from Emerald Plantation Shopping Center.
  • NC 58 across from CVS and K&V Plaza,
  • Town government complex, and
  • Eastern Ocean Regional Access.

Organizations wishing to advertise special events would be required to have banners professionally made to the size required to fit the fixed posts.  Organizations would be required to notify the Town Planner when such signs are placed, and the Town would establish basic rules for which events / organizations may use the poles, what duration, etc.  No other banners, banner locations, or other temporary signs would be permitted.  The Town’s sign ordinance would be amended accordingly.

NCDOT could likely force the removal of such fixed posts and banners, however, I believe they are unlikely to take that approach.

  1. Temporary, professionally-made campaign size signs only.

The Town would not install new electronic community information signs.The Town would amend the sign ordinance to continue to allow temporary signs for public, non-profit, charitable, or religious events only, but the signs would be limited in size to a total of 6 sq. ft. (the same size limit as campaign signs) and would be required to be professionally made (no hand-written, home-made signs).

No banners would be permitted anywhere in the NC 58 right-of-way, and the same “30 days prior / 10 days after” timeframe would remain in effect.An exemption would be included for one larger sign (up to 32 sq. ft.), professionally-made, for Town sponsored special events (i.e., St. Patrick’s Festival, Fireworks) only.All temporary signs would be required to be made with a wood, aluminum, plastic or other hard surface (no banners).

NCDOT could likely force the removal of the campaign size signs contemplated under this option, however, I believe they are unlikely to take that approach.  In reality, this option is perhaps the most likely option to continue to be tolerated by NCDOT in the future.

In essence, this option mirrors the Town’s (modeled after State law) campaign sign regulations.

  1. Electronic community information signs on Town property.  The Town would implement the concept approved by the Board at the August 2015 meeting, and would purchase new electronic community information signs to be located on Town property only.  The Town’s sign ordinance would be amended to prohibit all temporary signs in the right-of-way. The Town would control the messages on the signs, and would establish basic rules for which events / organizations may have messages on the signs, what duration, etc.

The new electronic signs would be located on the Coast Guard Road right of way near Reed Drive (two-way signs, facing each direction), at the Town government complex (two-way signs), and at the Eastern Ocean Regional Access or Fire Station 1 (two-way signs).  A total of 6 electronic signs would be purchased, and the total cost would increase from approximately $10,000 - $15,000 originally envisioned to $25,000 - $30,000.  The installation of the signs in the three locations could be scheduled over multiple budget years to make it more affordable.

NCDOT would have no jurisdiction over these signs, as they’d all be located on Town right-of-ways or Town-owned property.  The signs would likely be visible to most, but probably not all, Emerald Isle motorists, and would likely be an effective mechanism for public, non-profit, charitable, and religious organizations to promote their special events.

Recommended Strategy

After talking with various individuals (including Commissioners) in recent weeks, discussing this issue with Town staff, considering NCDOT regulations, and attempting to achieve the proper balance between community aesthetics and assisting the various good causes that use temporary signs, I am recommending that the Board pursue Option 3 described above: temporary, professionally made campaign sized signs only.

My rationale for this recommendation is as follows:

  • unsightly banners, often unsecured and flapping in the wind, and occasionally home-made, would be eliminated,
  • the Town does not allow commercial establishments to use banners, and this approach would make the Town’s regulations consistent for commercial establishments and these public, non-profit, charitable, or religious special events,
  • although the sheer number of campaign signs is offensive to some, most campaign signs are not offensive, are highly portable, and relatively small in size,
  • this option mirrors the Town’s (modeled after State law) campaign sign regulations,
  • a total of 6 sq. ft. allows for somewhat larger signs than typical campaign-size signs,
  • NCDOT is more likely to tolerate this approach than the other options,
  • some community members expressed opposition to the electronic signs, including some Planning Board members, and
  • there is no cost to the Town, and the $10,000 budgeted for electronic community information signs can be reallocated for another beneficial purpose.

Potential pitfalls or criticisms of this approach are as follows:

  • the requirement for the signs to be professionally made may increase the cost for some special event sponsors (banners are often relatively inexpensive),
  • Town staff will need to effectively communicate the banner prohibition, and will likely remove several banners initially,
  • some special events may believe they are not adequately promoting their cause without banners, and
  • this approach may or may not comply with the recent US Supreme Court ruling regarding sign regulations, however, it is not any worse than the Town’s current ordinance in that respect (and may be more consistent with that ruling).

Proposed Amendments to Sign Ordinance

If the Board is comfortable with the recommended strategy outlined in Option 3, I will task Town Planner Josh Edmondson with presenting recommended sign ordinance amendments to the Planning Board at their December or January meeting.  The recommended sign ordinance amendments would then be presented to the Board of Commissioners for formal consideration at your January or February meeting.

The proposed sign ordinance amendments may be similar to the following:

SIGN, TEMPORARY

A sign that is an advertising display constructed of cloth, canvas, fabric, plastic, paper, plywood, aluminum, or other hard material intended to be displayed to inform the public of an unusual or special event sponsored by a non-profit, public, charitable or religious organization. Such signs shall not exceed thirty-two (32) six (6) square feet in area per display surface, and must be professionally-made.  The signs may be erected not more than thirty (30) days prior to the event and must be removed within ten (10) days following the completion of the event. Each such event shall be limited to a maximum of six (6) signs. Such signs may be placed in a street right-of-way; provided that the sign is placed in such a manner as to not obstruct driver vision of any vehicle entering a roadway from any street, alley, driveway, or parking lot. Town-sponsored special events may utilize one additional sign that shall not exceed thirty-two (32) square feet in area per display surface.

There are likely other ideas or variations of the 4 options above that could be considered, and I am happy to explore any other ideas the Board may wish to consider.  I look forward to your feedback on this issue at the December 8 meeting.