Monday, July 20, 2009

How to Prompt Planning Commissioners to Ask the Right Kinds of Questions

Besides the important proceedings on Bells Bend and on the West Nashville community plan Thursday, the Metro Planning Commission is also going to be busy in a workshop to learn more on the impact of commercial-weight light-emitting diode signs in residential neighborhoods.

In anticipation of that event, LED Task Force member and neighborhood leader Burkley Allen provides a primer for concerned neighborhood leaders to contact and encourage commissioners to ask the important questions during that session:

After much discussion and a great showing from opponents of the ordinance, Charlie Tygard's LED bill was deferred at the 6/11/09 planning commission meeting and the council public hear was deferred until November. Because of the strong opposition and all the valid points raised at the planning commission hearing, the commission is holding a workshop this Thursday to get further information on the issue. Planning staff will be presenting at the workshop.

I think our input to the planning commission is still important at this point. Please write the planning commissioners and ask that they ask for specific information about the important issues. I would pick your favorites from the list below and expand:

· We need to be sure that they ask a lot of questions about our peer cities and what they allow. It is worth pointing out that we continually look at Williamson County as our most vigorous business competition and their sign restrictions are very stringent. Even the Green Hills UDO does not allow signs with “any apparent visible movement.”

· The second issue to stress is the difficulty of enforcement. The more confusing this law is, the harder it will be for codes to identify what is allowed where. 9 months after the task force was formed, and i gave codes a list of non-complying signs, I can still see many out of compliance on West End in plain sight.

· Energy conservation has been listed as an advantage of LED signs. Bulb for bulb, LED’s use less energy, but a sign has hundreds of LED bulbs. From what I’ve found so far on vendors’s websites the wattage of a typical LED sign is as much as or greater than that of a spot light for an externally lit sign. Does it really save energy over an existing sign illuminated by a 150 watt spotlight when an LED sign has to be illuminated during daylight hours as well as after dark?

· The planning staff report states that the proposed ordinance attempts to balance the “need” for these signs against neighbors’ concerns. Has this “need” been verified or documented? Technology now makes it possible for most churches and community centers to give detailed information about all their programs on their websites and through listservs.

· Safety is still an issue. The Federal Highway Administration is conducting an independent study to determine whether LED signs present a traffic hazard. There are a number of studies with conflicting conclusions.

· The issue of community character came up in the planning commission public hearing. The aethestics of LED signs seem to be universally regarded as out of place in neighborhoods.

· The ordinance as written does not deal with the possibility of using SP (Specific Plan) zoning to completely disregard all the regulations and make up a complete new set of rules for LED signs.

· The ordinance as written has most of its requirements under the Special Exception portion of the zoning codes 17.16.230 and very little information in the Sign Regulations, Chapter 17.32. From a planning perspective, this seems like a very convoluted way to spell out what is allowed for signs.

· One of the planning commissioners implied that this ordinance applies a consistent rule for LED signs over the whole county. On the contrary, it creates arbitrary setbacks and previous sign requirements that make two identical businesses or community services subject to different restrictions. The current code is much more clear and enforceable.

· We need to consider is whether to take a stand on expansion into limited commercial, mixed use, and office zoning districts. We have focused pretty intently on residential and agricultural, which is 80% of the county by land mass. Any thoughts on the other areas where LED signs are currently prohibited?

· Finally does this ordinance really address the issue that got this process started? A church in a residentially zoned district that no longer had any houses in sight wanted an LED sign and asked the BZA to grant it a hardship.

The official planning commission vote on this is currently scheduled to take place August 13. The council hearing is now schedule for November. It is very likely much will change between now and then.

There are three possible amendments already mentioned:

1. Measure the 250 foot setback from the boundary of residential property rather than an existing residential structure.

2. Allow LED signs in CL districts by right so that none of the restrictions except staying static apply.

3. The Board of Zoning Appeals would be prohibited from allowing LED signs in single family residential zoning districts.

Proposed amendments 1 and 3 seem to be attempts to take some of our concerns into account, but I believe that they still leave the issue of enforcement unanswered. Proposed amendment number 2 opens up Commercial Limited areas to the less restricted LED options. This includes places like Hillsboro Hardware and Bongo Java.

Our input can shape where this goes. Thanks for your help.

Burkley Allen

Hillsboro West End Neighborhood representative to Sign Ordinance Task Force

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