Dressed as the Statue of Liberty? Not allowed. Spinning a gym business sign on the street corner? Out of here. Posting your business signs among a crop of political signs? No more.

At least, those are some of the recommended amendments to the city’s sign ordinance now being considered by the City Council. But it must tread carefully around the constitutional rights of businesses to advertise and residents to express opinions and support, according to legal counsel.

The proposed amendments to the sign ordinance included restricting “sign-spinners” and people in costumes, such as Statue of Liberty costumes worn during tax season. Such sign-wavers would be considered “animated signs,” said City Planner Ronnie Kurtz at the July 10 City Council meeting.
Sign-spinners — employees who spin a business’ sign to attract attention to the business — are dangerous and should be prohibited, said Mayor Denis Shortal.

“To me it’s a safety issue because when people see a sign being spun, it’s like texting and it takes their mind off driving,” Shortal said.

There is no definition of what a “costume” is in the code, pointed out resident Joe Hirsch, who called the attempt to regulate what people wear when holding signs as “mind-boggling.”

Kurtz said in a statement after the meeting that the intended purpose of the amendment was to prevent people or businesses from enlisting individuals as sign-spinners, typically located near right-of-way and streets to advertise businesses.

“Upon further review, it was deemed that the definition for an ‘animated sign’ as is already included in the code, encompasses such activity, and appropriately allows for enforcement and prevention,” he said.

“The city currently is not aware of other municipalities adopting regulations for people in costumes advertising for businesses,” Kurtz said.

The aftershocks of the long, arduous 6th Congressional District campaign season are also seeping into the city’s sign ordinance.

“The genesis of this came out of the very long election cycle,” Kurtz told the council at the July 10 meeting, of trying to regulate numbers of signs placed in the city.

Planners are proposing revisions to the sign ordinance policy that include trying to find a way to limit “standard informational signs” during campaign seasons.

“Staff received a myriad of complaints on a daily basis from the public that there were too many standard informational signs in the city,” Kurtz said.

Residents complained specifically about the number of signs in Perimeter Center and Dunwoody Village, he said.

Municipalities cannot regulate a sign’s content. But the planners proposal looks at limiting how many signs can go up in commercial areas and, at first, also looked at limiting them in residential areas.

“We looked into our code … and the culprit is we allow unlimited signs from the date of qualifying to the election. We felt the most prudent way to deal with this issue was to define a political sign by itself … but that was deemed by the city attorney to not be constitutional,” Kurtz said.

One of the major complaints is not about the political signs, according to Councilmember Terry Nall, but that businesses tend to take advantage of a code section that allows more signs to be placed in the city during election season. More standard informational signs are allowed to be placed by anyone from the candidate qualifying period through Election Day, according to code. The proposed amendment would limit the number of signs on commercial property, but does not regulate political signs.

“A key provision is to correct a section that was originally intended to apply to political signs during campaign seasons,” Nall said in a statement.

“Because sign content cannot be regulated, that original section became an unintended loophole for businesses that place a large quantity of ‘standard informational signs’ on their commercial property. The sizes of these type signs are typically 2-by-2, 3-by-3, or 4-by-4 feet,” he said.

“The amendment will be more restrictive on commercial properties for these types of signs, while retaining the freedom of homeowners to display these signs, such as for political candidates, school fundraisers, etc.,” Nall added.

While this “loophole” has existed for years, during the 6th Congressional District residents were very vocal about the number of campaign signs, Kurtz said at the council meeting. “Only in this past election did we have a consistent problem with almost daily complaints,” he said.

Assistant City Manager Jessica Guinn also told council that the issue is fairly common in other municipalities.

“We are limited in how we can restrict content in signs … and if we open the gates to political signs, businesses will take advantage,” she said. “This is not unique to this election cycle.”

Kurtz explained further that “while the code does not go out of its way to target one particular group, we’ve experienced businesses using the increased standard informational signage allowances during the past election cycle to advertise their businesses.”

An amendment to limit “standard informational signs” also in residential areas during an election season was quickly shot down.

“I think that’s a terrible idea,” Councilmember Lynn Deutsch said. “I personally hesitate regulating what homeowners can do in their own yard. Also, people need to talk to their neighbors.”

There will be multiple qualifying periods in 2018, Deutsch said, and free speech and number of signs is a sensitive issue. How does one actually define what an election season is, for example, she said.

“I don’t think regulating during an election season is a viable solution,” she said. Informing businesses and candidates what the city does legally allow when it comes to signs is perhaps a better way, she said.

“Rather than regulate, educate,” she said.

The sign ordinance is expected to come up for second and final read at the July 24 meeting.

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