Signs, signs, everywhere a sign.
Signs have been the talk in Huntsville ever since the new Holiday Inn Express opened just off Interstate 45 and wanted to put a large sign up just like the businesses in front of it.
Current city sign ordinances state that along the 11-mile I-45 corridor, businesses within 500 feet of the freeway can have signs up to 42 feet above ground. Businesses more than 500 feet from the freeway can only have 20-foot signs.
The city granted a variance to its sign ordinance for newly constructed Holiday Inn to allow the hotel to purchase a small piece of adjacent land where a smaller sign was placed to let travelers know how to turn into the facility. But it was not allowed a 42-foot sign.
Fast forward a year and the Best Western off Highway 30 is looking at the same problem. Located behind Office Depot, the Best Western is more than 500 feet from the freeway. As such, its sign can only be 20 feet off the ground, but it is now obscured by the Office Depot building.
The city’s planning and zoning committee has heard numerous complaints over the years from businesses behind the 500-foot boundary described by the ordinance, and every time it has unanimously voted to keep sign ordinances as they are.
During its Jan. 4 meeting, Huntsville City Council heard a first reading of a proposed ordinance to change the rule moving the 500-foot setback from 500 feet from the freeway to 600 feet. If approved, businesses such as Holiday Inn and Best Western could have signs that are 42 feet high rather than the 20 feet required by the current ordinance.
Bill Knotts has been hearing the signage debate for many years — he’s served on the planning and zoning committee since 1961 and on city council as well. He said changing these types of ordinances puts the city on a slippery slope: Once one such change is made, people will want the rules changed every year.
“My personal opinion is that we have a limit of 500 feet from the edge of the freeway, and we feel it’s plenty far,” he said. “If we don’t draw a line somewhere and stay with it, it could move 200 feet every year depending on who requests a sign.”
Knotts said the current argument that Best Western’s sign should be visible from the freeway is wrong because by the time you could see a 42-foot Best Western sign from I-45, you’d be past the exit to Highway 30.
“I don’t see it’s going to help a lot,” he said. “In reality, I don’t think it makes their business more visible. You have to draw limits somewhere.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, council member Lydia Montgomery said she has issues with the ordinance because it affects the entire I-45 corridor.
“I am concerned about 11 miles being affected,” she said. “That is a lot of our property in that corridor where we’re changing how high the signs are for 11 miles. I have to admit, that’s a deep concern for me.”
Playing devil’s advocate, council member Wayne Barrett said while he agreed it would be a serious decision to overturn a long-standing planning and zoning decision, he sees the need for businesses along the corridor to have effective advertising.
“I just got back from a trip to Alabama, and at different places where we chose to leave the interstate, whether we were looking for gas or something to eat, those signs in the sky really helped,” he said. “Speaking as a traveler, I found it very helpful, and sometimes it would determine where I would get off because I could see the place’s sign. I think we want to be up to date and reasonable and do things that are normative.”
City Manager Bill Baine, interviewed later in the week, said he thinks the ordinances need to be looked at in a more progressive way.
“We have sign ordinances that, frankly, are left over from the 1950s and ‘60s,” he said. “There’s an opinion in the city held by a lot of people that they’re good enough and we don’t need to change. Five hundred feet is about 170 yards — what’s the difference in 170 yards and 200 yards?”
But Mayor J. Turner said land prices also have to be taken into consideration when deciding the height of these I-45 corridor signs. Property along the interstate sells for much more than property that is set back off the interstate, something the city must consider.
“Land along the freeway is priced by the square foot. You’re talking about land that is $430,000 an acre,” he said. “Now, land (along the second tier behind frontage property) is still being sold almost by the acre price. If putting the hotel (on I-45 frontage) is going to cost $430,000 an acre and putting the hotel further back is going to cost $40,000 an acre — as a community, how much of an obligation do we have to make the (rules the same for each lot)?”
Turner said he leans toward agreeing with the decision of the planning and zoning committee because it’s been tasked with making these decisions — not the City Council.
“The quick resolution is P&Z was unanimously opposed to it. It’s not a ditch worth dying in,” he said. “We have a planning and zoning commission that we have tasked to be the citizens’ representative. This issue has come before them multiple times, and they have rejected it unanimously. Certainly, the mayor and council have oversight, and if they disagree, they can go a different direction. I think you have to do it with a certain amount of reservation.”
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign.
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