Monday, September 17, 2012

Oconee County To Add Three Billboards As Part of Settlement with Fairway Outdoor Advertising

One For Butler’s Crossing

Oconee County will get three new billboards--two of them on Epps Bridge Parkway and one in Butler’s Crossing--as a result of a settlement the county has reached with Fairway Outdoor Advertising, a national outdoor advertising company with regional offices in Athens.

Fairway also agreed to remove three of the six billboards it currently has along U.S. 441–one for each of the new billboards it installs on Epps Bridge Parkway and in Butler’s Crossing. It also agreed to withdraw three additional sign permit applications it had submitted to the county to install signs on Hog Mountain Road, Hodges Mill Road and Jordan Drive and not to seek any new sign locations in Oconee County for five years.

The county agreed to allow Fairway “to utilize digital displays” on the new billboards.

If Fairway decides to use digital display for any of the signs, the signs will be made available to local law enforcement for emergency use, including for Amber Alerts (missing child) and other missing person announcements, for disaster information, for wanted fugitive information and for other emergency announcements.

Fairway also agreed to donate advertising space on any digital billboards it builds to the county for “display of promotional messages or community messages.” The county would be allocated one spot in the advertising rotation on any digital display for up to four weeks in each calendar year.

Fairway released pictures of how the billboards will look once installed at each of the three sites it has selected. Shown above and below are pictures I took at the sites. The picture behind the one shown comes from the settlement.

Dismissal of Suit

The settlement agrees to a permanent dismissal of the suit Fairway filed against the county in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia Athens Division and states the agreement “represents merely a compromise of a disputed claim and is not an admission of liability on the part of the county.”

In fact, the agreement acknowledges, the county denies any liability in the suit.

Fairway filed the suit in Sept. 22, 2011, after Steve Hansford, then director of Code Enforcement for Oconee County, rejected five applications Fairway had filed with the county for signs it wanted to build. Hansford rejected the sixth application on Sept. 29, 2011.

In each case, Hansford informed Fairway that its application failed to comply with two sections of the county’s sign ordinance dealing with the site plan for the sign locations and a list of signs at that same location to be removed as the new ones were installed. He also said the applications did not meet the Uniform Development Code for the county.

Fairway claimed that the county has “accepted applications with less detailed site plans or no site plays at all” in the past and approved the signs.

Fairway also said the sign ordinance and the UDC “violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and corresponding provisions of the Georgia Constitution” and that the sign regulations “violate equal protection” because Fairway was “treated differently from other sign applicants.”

Fairway Proposes 3 Sites

Fairway, in the settlement, proposes that one of the signs on Epps Bridge Parkway be on the southeast side of the road near the entrance to the Markets at Epps Bridge, home to Trader Joe’s.

The other Epps Bridge Parkway location would be on the opposite side of the roadway near the entrance to Wal-Mart.

These locations are tentative, however, and the settlement allows Fairway to locate the signs at any point along Epps Bridge Parkway between SR Loop 10 and the Clarke County line, but only one sign can be on either side of the roadway.

In the application for the Butler’s Crossing sign, Fairway proposed to locate the sign in front of the Golden Pantry. The application included a letter from David B. Griffith, president of Golden Pantry, granting Fairway permission to locate the sign on that property.

Signs To Be Lagged

Fairway agreed as part of the settlement to erect one sign in 2012 and two in 2013. It did not specify the order of construction of the signs.

One of the signs on U.S. 441 to be removed would be north of the Watkinsville bypass. The other two are near Farmington.

No Building Permit Requests

B.R. White, head of the merged Planning Department and Code Enforcement Office, told me at the end of last week that no requests for building permits for any of the signs had been submitted for Fairway.

Fairway can either purchase or lease land for the signs, he said, but a lease is more likely.

White told me Fairway is one of a number of billboard companies with signs in Oconee County. Lamar Outdoor, the largest outdoor advertising company in the country, has signs in the county, he said.

Oconee County has 15 outdoor signs locations in the unincorporated part of the county, White said.

Final Settlement Approved in July

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners approved the final settlement at the end of its July 24 meeting, following an executive session lasting about 20 minutes.

On May 8, following an 80-minutes executive session, the BOC returned to open session and voted to agree to a settlement with Fairway, though final details were not announced. The BOC also passed an emergency moratorium on the acceptance of applications to erect or install any sign larger than 32 square feet in size.

At its session on May 29, the BOC gave first reading to a revision of the sign ordinance, which it passed after second reading on June 5.

At that June 5 meeting, the BOC also repealed its emergency moratorium on acceptance of large sign applications.

Changes in Ordinance

“The sign ordinance is the single, most highly judicially reviewed document we do because it impinges on the first amendment,” County Attorney Daniel Haygood told the Board on May 29.

The changes to the ordinance Haygood proposed were the result of case law he said he had become aware of as a result of the Fairway suit.

The changes removed an exemption for government signs from the provisions of the ordinance, removed some discretion on the part of the planning director in administering the ordinance, and eliminated the possibility that the BOC could grant variances on signs.

The prior law said that if an existing sign rotted and fell down, it could not be replaced. The new ordinance said a new sign can be installed in the location of an existing sign within a year of the original being torn down.

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