Proposed sign ordinance creates burdensome new regulations

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By Jason Zacher, Vice President of Business Advocacy, Greenville Chamber

The proudest (and scariest) moment for a new business is switching on the “open” sign and putting the sandwich board out on the street to let the world know you’re there.

You’re going to need a few new government permits for that, if the Greenville County Sign Ordinance Study Committee gets its way. A proposed ordinance makes your grand opening a “special event,” and you’d better not cover up more than 20 percent of your windows with signs that are less than 12 inches from the window. Oh, you’ll also have to tell the county up front whether you want to use balloons and streamers or your choice of one banner, one portable sign or one inflatable sign.

Do you want to put out a few directional signs at nearby intersections so people know you’re open? You’ll need another permit if you plan to have them up beyond a few hours on a weekend. And be sure your signs are “professionally applied,” or the county could decide to cite you for another violation.

All of these new regulations are a reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court restriction that only said a sign ordinance couldn’t regulate a sign’s content. The study committee was charged with addressing that decision as well as reducing the number of variance applications heading to the Board of Zoning Appeals. After a summer’s worth of meetings, we fail to see how either of these goals have been addressed.

What the committee did dream up is a collection of arbitrary new regulations that heap more cost, permits and red tape on Greenville’s mom-and-pop businesses. (And please note: This ordinance applies to the county, not any of the municipalities.)

If you haven’t followed along, this study committee is addressing last year’s unanimous Reed v. Town of Gilbert U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Court held Gilbert, Ariz., couldn’t impose content-based restrictions on signs. Gilbert had a sign ordinance that placed a tougher restriction on temporary signs advertising religious services than other commercial signs. That is an unconstitutional restriction of speech.

The question before code enforcement officials here and across the country is whether the Gilbert decision can be used to dramatically restrict signs and their messages. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing the majority opinion, held such restrictions must survive “strict scrutiny” — the highest level of legal scrutiny.

To use our grand opening example from above, we don’t understand how the county could regulate special events without considering the content of the sign. We’re also unclear how the county plans to enforce such an ordinance with a single sign code enforcement officer, or how the county plans to efficiently process all of the permits they may soon require — without a major investment in new staff.

One exchange from a May meeting is enlightening. In regards to the “special event” language, a county official said, “A company is going to really have to want to put something up to go to the trouble to…” He was interrupted by a committee member who said, “That’s what we’re talking about!” and clapped his hands.

We should be clear: Government has a compelling interest in regulating signs based on public safety and to promote a “positive visual environment,” as the current ordinance states. Had the committee stuck to clear, objective standards for signs, such as size requirements based on a property’s zoning area or the speed limit of the adjacent road, everyone would have to follow the same rules.

However, we fail to see how banning any sign because someone on a study committee doesn’t like how it looks — as the committee did with the inflatable dancing men that my kids love — is a compelling government interest. Local businesses don’t want unregulated junk littering every inch of highway, but businesses need to be able to get their names out there with the one piece of business advertising that doesn’t cost them a fortune.

In another column on this topic last spring, I quoted Justice Thomas’ opinion in Gilbert, and the quote holds true today: “Innocent motives do not eliminate the danger of censorship … as future government officials may one day wield such statutes to suppress disfavored speech.”

And, of course, the ordinance specifically exempts government and quasi-government entities.

This ordinance has not been presented to the County Council, and our Council should receive final language later this fall. It is important that small businesses across Greenville County be sure that the aesthetic whims of a few study committee members don’t result in undue cost and burdensome regulations for years to come.

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