Comparison of sign ordinances shows local rules may not be ‘out of line’

A side-by-side comparison of sign ordinances from area cities shows Liberty Hill’s rules may not be as restrictive and “anti-business” as some have claimed.

Members of the Planning & Zoning Commission, the majority of whom have suggested that the City’s sign regulations and permit fees are partially to blame for slow business growth in Liberty Hill, got a glimpse on Tuesday at the ordinances for Georgetown, Leander, Cedar Park and Burnet. Commissioner Bill Soja prepared the document and presented it to the group minutes after Commissioner Wes Griffin proposed an overhaul.

“What we have isn’t too restrictive at all,” said Soja. “I would hate to see us do a hatchet job (rewriting the ordinance) if what we have is kind of working.”

In November, Chairman Clyde Davis, a local real estate broker, proposed major changes to the ordinance, but when those changes were adopted and recommended to Council, elected officials agreed some of the proposals were ill defined. The Council sent the matter back to Planning & Zoning and asked for new recommendations by Jan. 15, 2012.

On Tuesday, Griffin, an architect, submitted an eight-page re-write of the sign ordinance that he described as less restrictive.

“I took the existing 21 pages of sign ordinance and left most of the verbage to maintain safety, but eliminated requirements that are detrimental. It allows everyone to put up whatever kind of sign they want. This gives more freedom to business owners.”

On Tuesday, he distributed to members and the audience a statement he entitled “Life, Liberty, Property and the Pursuit of Happiness,” which he said were his “comments” on his proposed revisions to the ordinance.

“As a community we must decide whether we want to be a city that is governed justly by the simple phrase ‘life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness’ or continue to be a city governed by an ever-increasing unjust set of rules, regulations, permits and fees that serve to usurp the individual rights and to regulate, control, and punish citizens beyond reason and unjustly through its inconsistent enforcement,” he said.

In comparing Liberty Hill’s ordinance to the other cities, Soja said signs in some cities were actually more regulated, yet the business community appeared to be prospering.

“We aren’t out of line with what the others are doing,” he said.

Davis argued that the other cities – Georgetown, Cedar Park, Leander, Burnet – are three to four times “or even 20 times” larger than Liberty Hill and have more people to pay the costs.

“We ought not to be comparing Liberty Hill to other cities,” said Commissioner Sammy Pruett, who expressed concerns about the price of a sign permit and suggested the City of Liberty Hill was trying to “make a profit” on the process.

“Cities don’t operate at profit,” explained City Manager Manuel De La Rosa. “But unless you want the taxpayers to shoulder all the costs, some services need to be backed by fees.”

“It’s not just about the money, it’s also about appearance,” said Soja.

“Our code was copied from Round Rock,” said Davis. “When you start a development,  you see how restrictive our code is.”

La Rosa said he would not recommend to Council that the current sign ordinance be “thrown out.”

“If it is too lax today, it will be more difficult to (make it more strict) in the future,” he said. “I have no issue with the fees. My issue is with sign blight.”

Among the Commission’s recommended changes in November, the permit fee was reduced from $5 per square foot with a $50 minimum to $2 per square foot with a $50 maximum. The new fee, which has yet to be adopted by Council, is equal to that charged by Cedar Park. Burnet charges a flat fee of $50 while Georgetown charges $75. Round Rock’s sign permit fee is $250 and Leander charges $2 per square foot.

The comparison prepared by Soja showed off-premise signs are not allowed in Georgetown or Leander. While there are off-premise signs in Liberty Hill, no future ones are permitted under the current sign ordinance. The Planning & Zoning Commission has recommended the Council reconsider that rule.

All of the cities surveyed had area and height limitations on signs. Only Liberty Hill and Burnet did not have standards set for lighted signs. All cities but Cedar Park and Leander referenced promotional or temporary event signs. And while Liberty Hill and Leander allowed portable signs, the other cities did not. The issue of human signs was only addressed by the City of Leander.

The number of prohibited signs was lower for Liberty Hill than the other five cities. Only three are prohibited here, while others ranged from 13 in Georgetown and Leander, to nine in Burnet and six in Cedar Park.

Only Liberty Hill and Georgetown had a master sign plan and permitting procedures were in place in every city but Georgetown.

During the public comments portion of the meeting Tuesday, Randy Odell, a local real estate broker, requested the Commission do something about a zoning ordinance that he said shows 90 percent of the city zoned for commercial use.

He said he first became aware of the problem when the Liberty Hill United Methodist Church attempted to sell a house that was previously used as a church office. An interested buyer intended to use it as a residence, but was informed at City Hall that once the property was zoned commercial, its  designation could not be reduced without requesting a variance.

“They chose to buy a home in Round Rock instead,” Odell said.

“These requirements should be changed,” he added. “Customers walk in City Hall and are told they can’t do something. The lady behind the counter has no clue what the people want to do. That’s not her responsibility. With this economy, everyone who walks in (should be considered) a potential customer. Planning & Zoning should be in the forefront of what is driving the city.”

City Attorney Brad Bullock explained that the ordinance questioned by Odell conforms with state law. If a property is not used for its zoned purpose for six months, it loses that official use.

“The provision is standard in all zoning ordinances. It is important and it protects the city,” Bullock said.

He explained that it is a common misconception that a zoning classification is a “property right” of the owner.

“Zoning laws are waiting for residents to move out. That’s the beginning of our problem,” said Griffin.

“This is a lesser use. What difference does it make?” asked Davis, adding that the City’s restrictive ordinances are driving businesses and residents elsewhere.

“This is going to be a ghost town one of these days,” he said.

“The city is not ready for commercial use in that area (near the Methodist Church),” said Pruett. “We have a bunch of lots on (Highway) 29 that we can’t sell.”

Davis said he believed the majority of the community does not understand the zoning ordinance.

“For 35 years, I’ve been in real estate here. I had no idea that there was no lesser use (provision),” he said. “Property owners don’t know what they’re up against.”

Griffin made a motion to have the Commission study the C2 zoning designation and revisit the matter at a future meeting. The motion was adopted unanimously. Commissioners Janet Oliver and Chris Pezold were not present Tuesday.

The Planning & Zoning Commission agreed to hold a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 20 for the purpose of continuing discussion on changes to the sign ordinance.