P&Z Commissioners disagree on need to overhaul sign ordinance

 Tuesday’s special meeting of the Planning & Zoning Commission brought more debate on the City’s sign ordinance, but still no hard decisions on which recommendations the Commission will send to Council.

Commissioner Wes Griffin, an Austin-based architect, submitted a revised list of ordinances to the panel — revised from  the document he submitted last week — noting that the only change he made was to remove the restrictions on size.

“I believe that we don’t need to regulate size restrictions of signs, because there’s so many other factors that regulate the size of signs,” he said. “For instance, if I want to go out on the highway and put up a sign, the first thing I’m going to ask is, ‘How much sign can I afford?’ I’m not going to go and spend more on my sign than is appropriate.”

The Commission shared frustrations with the way several ordinances were interpreted, with Commissioner Sammy Pruett noting he disagreed with the City Manager using his discretion to enforce some provisions of the sign ordinance including the regulation of off-premise signs.

“We heard Manny (City Manager Manuel De La Rosa) say that it’s at his discretion whether he lets off-premise signs,” he said. “The thing of it is, which Manny has said several times, he’s going to do whatever he wants to do no matter what is said, because it says specifically no off-premise signs, and he just got through saying non-profit off-premise signs. I agree, I think there should be non-profit signs too. But it says that there can’t be, and he says that he will allow them. So he’s saying ‘I’m going to do something that it says we can’t do, just because I have the power.’”

Chairman Clyde Davis, a real estate broker, defended the use of off-premise signs as a source of income for local businesses.

“The situation with that is, I mean that makes no sense to me. Because like Winkley’s has eight signs out there on his big sign out in front, and I assume that everybody pays him. So that’s part of his income so he can stay in business,” Davis said. “I know the ones on my sign, which are, I guess two. They certainly pay me. It’s not for free.”

Currently, there are two off-premise signs located in front of Davis’ real estate office at RE/MAX Town & Country.

Commissioner Bill Soja, a retired civil engineer, noted that some of the revisions in Griffin’s plan were in direct conflict with the Comprehensive Plan, which states a need for size regulations and disallows off-premise signs of any kind. He said the plan states that signs should “not deter from the beauty of the city.”

“The Comprehensive Plan clearly states that we should have size and height restrictions on signs and not have a free for all,” Soja said.

“When they started that Comprehensive Plan, there was going to be a bypass. All of a sudden they were going to come up with $25,000 for this road plan, the Comprehensive Road Plan around Liberty Hill, and six months later when the road plan was supposed to be presented, no road plan. A few months later that’s where the Comprehensive Plan came from. For about $25,000, it just dropped out of the air,” said Davis.

Griffin agreed that the Comprehensive Plan might also need to be changed.

“It’s an interesting tool to make sure that your stuff never gets changed by stating in your preamble, ‘This is the plan and these are our visions, and nothing in here should ever go against this stuff’….then you write 5,200 pages of regulations, and you want to change one regulation and it disagrees with the preamble, that’s a no-no. The bottom line is, we’ve got to go back, and take the Comprehensive Plan and, I believe as a Planning & Zoning (Commission), revise the entire Comprehensive Plan because I disagree with the very vision of the Comprehensive Plan. It’s over-arching, it’s over-controlling, and I  don’t think Liberty Hill needs those kinds of restrictions.”

“We’re in a situation in Liberty Hill, there’s six businesses going out of businesses this month. The rest of them are going out because they can’t make it. The more we pile on them, the less we’re going to have bringing sales tax. The property taxes are going to be there because the facilities aren’t going away, but the sales tax are going away, and more importantly, six people no longer have a way to make a living. And that’s a fact, in Liberty Hill, TX. We can think everything’s coming up roses, but it’s not and we need to take as much burden off these people as we can.” said Davis.

Soja said there needs to be a structured procedure for changing the ordinances, and passed out a document he entitled “Suggested Sign Regulation Upgrade Process,” which outlined a seven-step process to expedite changes, clarify existing sign regulations, and keep a historical record of  any amendments to the ordinances.

Griffin called for the Planning & Zoning Commission to back off most regulations.

“What’s wrong with ugly? Ugly is not illegal. We don’t need laws about ugly. We don’t need regulations about what is not pretty to us. I appreciate the process, and your work, Bill, you’ve obviously worked very hard on everything you brought to the meeting, but this is going a different direction. I’m talking about less, I’m not talking about more.Every business owner that wants to put up a sign is going to feel like they have to hire a lawyer to make sure they’re doing all the stuff right,” Griffin said.

“Personally, when I drive down (State Highway) 29 after work every day, it’s a free for all right now,” Soja said. “Big signs, little signs, portable signs, wooden signs, LED signs, every sign imaginable. There’s no control. It seems there’s no regulations.”

Pruett reminded the commission that the expected growth of Liberty Hill called for a need for these ordinances.

“There’s a lot of lots on Highway 29 for sale. There’s a lot of lots that are getting built on. You start adding signs, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, that’s the reason. The more people that come, the more signs there’s going to be.

“At the rate we’re going, one every three years, I don’t think that’s a problem,” said Davis.

Commissioner Janet Oliver said the sign ordinance is not keeping businesses from coming to Liberty Hill.

“I don’t think it’s sign ordinances that’s keeping them away. The business will come, it’s just not coming soon enough for some people,” she said.

As for going forward, Pruett said he disagreed with having new off-premise signs, but would be okay with allowing the current signs to remain. When asked his opinion, Davis replied, “Part of my income comes from off-premise signs, so I’m not a very good one to ask.”

Griffin stated that he felt that business would move on “to the next town,” if that were to happen.

“Do you really think off-premise signs will keep people from coming?” asked  Pruett.

“It’s part of a bigger picture,” Griffin responded.

During public commentary local real estate broker Randy O’Dell spoke for the second time in as many weeks about making the process easier for building owners to reduce the zoning from commercial to residential.

“If you start a home business and it doesn’t work, then there’s just a form to fill out, maybe a $25 fee,” Odell suggested. “Then you don’t need to go to the city council every month.”

Last week, O’Dell told the Commission about a house owned by the Liberty Hill United Methodist Church, which was once used as a church office and is zoned commercial. The building was remodeled into a residence, and problems arose when O’Dell tried to sell the building as residence.

The Commission expressed frustration with the way that codes are enforced and interpreted.

“If you ask three people the same question down at City Hall, you get three different answers,” said Commissioner Patrick Harlow.

After a lengthy discussion Tueday, commissioners did not take action on the zonging or sign ordinances.

De La Rosa was not present for the meeting. He told The Independent Wednesday that because “it was a special called meeting on topics that had been discussed previously by the Commission,  there would be no need for my attendance, and I would wait for their recommendations.”

The next regular meeting is scheduled  Jan. 10, 2012 — five days before the Council-set deadline to have changes proposed to the sign ordinance.