After a backlash from business owners, a proposal to change the city’s electronic sign ordinance has been removed from next week’s agenda for the Oak Ridge Municipal Planning Commission.
It’s not clear when the revisions, which would govern message display times and brightness, could be considered by the city.
Business owners with electronic signs had objected to the mid-December meeting date, the short amount of time they had to prepare, and a letter they recently received that gave them 10 days to fix any violations of the city’s sign ordinance. The letter, sent to 18 businesses with electronic signs, said signs that have messages that are animated, moving, or flashing are generally prohibited in Oak Ridge.
￼The proposed revisions would have required that electronic sign messages be static and shown for at least 10 seconds. Animations and movements between messages would not have been allowed and neither would animated video or continuous message scrolling.
The proposed revisions would have also set a maximum light intensity for the signs. The changes had been scheduled to be considered by the Oak Ridge City Council on Monday, Dec. 10, but council postponed its vote until next year.
In a Dec. 3 memo to Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson, Community Development Director Kathryn Baldwin said drivers and residents have complained about the electronic reader board signs. The city staff worked with the Oak Ridge Municipal Planning Commission chair and Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce to clarify the regulations, Baldwin said.
Business owners said they just learned in the past week about the Dec. 20 planning commission meeting. Some said this is their busiest time of year and not the best time for them to work on sign ordinance changes.
They also said they were shocked, disappointed, or frustrated to receive the violation notice letter from the city. They thought they were in compliance, the business owners said, and the letters, which threatened legal action for non-compliance, didn’t cite the specific infractions at their businesses.
“What are we doing wrong?” asked Toney Stevens, owner of Rivers Total Car Care on Oak Ridge Turnpike. He said he’s had his sign, which cost about $16,000, for more than seven years, and it’s featured a variety of messages, including Santa, July 4 fireworks, and Thanksgiving turkeys.
Rick Chinn of R&R Enterprises, which owns the Riverside Grille property on Melton Lake Drive, said the restaurant had a permit to put up its sign, which cost about $60,000.
“We thought we were following the letter of the law,” Chinn said.
Stevens attracted attention to the city letter this week, temporarily posting a message on his sign that asked people to call the city and ask the staff why he couldn’t post an image of Santa. He has since removed that message.
“I think the city needs to be reasonable, and I think businesses need to be reasonable,” Stevens said. “The city could use business signs to their advantage.”
One business owner, Martha Hart of Karen’s Jewelers, said she’s had nothing but positive comments about her sign.
City officials said their intentions were misunderstood. Baldwin said some sign owners seem to think the city has asked them to take down their signs.
“We haven’t asked anyone to take their signs down,” Baldwin said. “We’re just asking them to bring it into compliance in terms of light intensity and rate of movement.”
Baldwin said some signs in Oak Ridge don’t comply with the city ordinance at all, others do, and some are in between. She declined to name the signs that don’t comply.
It wasn’t immediately clear Friday afternoon if the businesses would still be held to the 10-day notice. On Thursday, Baldwin said the city’s plan had been to send out the current guidelines and then visit the businesses in 10 days, look at their signs, and tell the owners what they need to do to bring the signs into compliance.
“We were not singling out businesses,” Baldwin said. “We were trying to get a handle on something that has become problematic.”