Some people believe the current sign ordinance, which was adopted in the early part of this century, is too restrictive on businesses and obsolete as it relates to new technology like LED lighting.
Mayor Brent Lambert said the city is poised to experience unprecedented growth in coming years as more and more businesses are making inquiries to move to the city.
“This is an exciting time,” Lambert said. “But, it requires some planning.”
Lambert said the existing sign ordinance is “stringent” by design, with the aim being to limit signs that offend the sensibilities of homeowners and residents of the city. “We want to make East Ridge business friendly,” he said. “We don’t want to burden businesses, but we want it to look nice. How do you balance that? That’s why we’re here tonight.”
John Bridger, the Executive Director of the Regional Planning Agency, kicked off a discussion about what officials, business owners and citizens in East Ridge would like to see the commercial district look like in terms of signs.
Bridger said that sometimes codes can discourage business development. But codes can also insure a better quality sign and that business investment can increase the quality and appearance of a commercial district.
Bridger showed examples of new businesses and renovated buildings in Chattanooga, Brainerd and Collegedale. Along one stretch of Brainerd Road, recent design standards, including ones that govern signs, have allowed businesses like IHOP, Chick-fil-A and Applebees to build closer to the road and integrate landscaping elements to give a fresh, pleasing appearance.
“The point is, you can create quality standards which promote new investment,” he said.
Kenny Custer, the city’s chief codes enforcement officer, along with Melissa Mahoney, who has assisted with codes enforcement, briefed the council on the kinds of complaints received from citizens and business owners. Custer said the biggest issue has been in regard to temporary signs, in particular the ones that are “wind-driven.” He said the new Popeyes had a wind-driven sign and other businesses used flags to promote sales.
“How can we accommodate citizens and businesses and not clutter the city?” Custer asked.
The city’s current code allows businesses a 30-day window in which to use a temporary sign like a banner. They are limited to 60 days a year in which to do it. But some businesses don’t want to keep the temporary sign up for the entire 30 days. In short, Mahoney said, they want more flexibility.
“They (businesses) want to break it up so they can use (the provision) more,” Mahoney said.
Councilman Larry Sewell said he has a problem with how bright several new LED signs are. “It illuminates about two blocks,” Sewell said. “It’s green, red and purple and very fast moving.”
Custer said when the current ordinance was written, LED signs didn’t exist in East Ridge. Custer said any new ordinance should have a provision which would force these signs to be dimmed and not interfere with distracting drivers at intersections.
Bridger showed some photos of development in several cities which East Ridge could use as a jumping off point for a new sign ordinance. In particular, he showed a photo of Medical Center Parkway in McMinnville, Tenn. Bridger said this was one of his favorites because it required businesses to use quality materials and “robust landscaping.”
“Still, you know what the businesses are, but it doesn’t overwhelm you,” he told the council.
There seemed to be a consencus among the council that any new sign law would veer away from allowing businesses to erect large signs on towering, skinny poles in the commercial district.
Mayor Lambert offered up an example of new development in the Ooltewah area off Exit 11 of Interstate 75. He said there are eight or nine businesses advertising on one sign.
“The more we can move toward the use of stone and brick, I think the more pleasing it will be,” he said.
Councilman Denny Manning expressed concern about how any new sign ordinance may impact existing small businesses. Manning said that a lot of small businesses can’t afford a “regular” sign.
“If people can’t see a business’s sign, they are going to go out of business,” he said.
Custer said the city now has “an extraordinary opportunity” in crafting a new sign ordinance. “What you do in this meeting and moving forward will affect businesses that come to East Ridge,” he said.
Before the conclusion of the meeting, Mayor Lambert expressed disappointment that not more members of the business community attended the workshop. He wants to schedule another workshop dealing with the sign ordinance once the council has a recommendation from city staff about specific provisions.