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Decatur City Council addresses sign issue with business owner

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, September 13, 2017
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The future of a recently-installed business sign just outside Decatur’s city limits remains up in the air following a lengthy discussion at Monday’s council meeting.

The sign in question is an electronic message board (EMB) placed underneath the Wise Honda sign at a business owned by Chris and Micah Fernihough, whose business is located in the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) along U.S. 81/287 in the south part of the city.

Since 2008, the city has required all businesses in the ETJ to follow the city’s sign ordinance requirements. If a sign does not meet the requirements, a variance application is required.

The council on Monday considered the variance application submitted by the Fernihoughs.

City Planning Director Dedra Ragland said the Fernihoughs did not come to the city for a permit to place the EMB on the existing sign pole, and the city discovered the issue after a citizen brought it to their attention.

The city identified four separate issues where the sign violated the city’s ordinance, including being located in a platted easement, being used as a main identifying sign for other businesses on the property, being twice as large as the city allows for an EMB and having the EMB being located along U.S. 81/287, which is not allowed.

The Fernihoughs were among property owners of eight tracts of land who recently signed development agreements with the city. Those tracts had been identified for involuntary annexation by the city, but after hearing concerns or opposition from the property owners, the city agreed in July to offer the agreements, which basically required the owners continue the current use on those properties, with no new development, and the city in return would agree not to annex the property for at least five years.

Property owners were allowed to continue plans that were already underway at the time the agreement was signed as long as information on those plans were shared as part of the agreement.

Ragland said the plans for a new sign were not included in that agreement the Fernihoughs signed.

Chris Fernihough told the council the signs were already in place when the agreement was signed.

“I had my sign purchased well before y’all contacted me saying y’all were going to do this (involuntary annexation),” Fernihough said. “This was already in the works. I would not have signed that if I didn’t have that sign up.”

Ragland pointed out that it didn’t change the fact that the signs were in violation of the ordinance, and the city could have pointed out those violations early in the process if Fernihough had followed the proper permitting procedure.

Fernihough had expressed concerns and frustrations in working with the city during the annexation process, and he admitted that was on his mind as he was working on the sign.

“At the time of actually going up with sign, obviously there were some touch-and-go moments between me and the city,” Fernihough said. “There were a few times when talking to the city wasn’t easy at the time of actually buying the sign, so asking the city for more guidance on this matter when I was in the midst of another debacle, it was just kind of a touchy subject, so I’ll be honest, we just didn’t go.”

He asked the city to grant the sign variance much like the council had done for other nearby EMB signs located along U.S. 81/287 in the area at places like Karl Klement Ford and James Wood Hyundai.

Council member Randy Parker pointed out that other businesses in the area had followed the proper procedures of obtaining a variance before putting up the signs.

Fernihough said he never received a permit to put up his Honda sign a few years ago when he opened the business, so he didn’t believe he needed to get a permit for the new sign. He also pointed out that the pole for the sign was already in place when he bought the property.

“Is it the citizen’s job to regulate the city’s ordinances?” he asked.

City Attorney Mason Woodruff provided the answer.

“It’s the citizen’s job to be aware of the law that is impacting upon their property, so it was your burden to know that,” he said. “No one’s blaming you for not knowing that, people don’t know it all the time, but it is not incumbent upon the city to drive up and down every road in every ETJ boundary to see who has put a sign up without consulting us. So what the city is saying is you really should have come to the city when you put the first sign up. And you should have gotten a permit when you put up the new sign as well.”

Mayor Martin Woodruff said he would be OK with allowing the oversized EMB like the city had allowed with other nearby businesses, and he suggested Fernihough sign an encroachment agreement acknowledging when the city or other utility company needs to access the easement, the cost to relocate the sign would be at Fernihough’s expense.

However, his main concern was safety issues, including the requirement to have a licensed civil or structural engineer approve the freestanding sign.

Mason Woodruff pointed out the council was not in a position to grant the variances until the safety issues were addressed, and Fernihough would agree to sign the encroachment agreement.

With everyone in agreement, the council decided to table action on granting the variance request to a future meeting to allow Fernihough time to address the issues.

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