Controlling signageProblem areas in county draw state, local attention
It’s something Haywood County Director of Planning Kris Boyd calls a “unique situation.”
He’s referring to the corner of Asheville Road (U.S. 23 Business) and Liner Cove Road at exit 104 in Haywood County. The “situation” is the multitude of signs that constantly crop up on that corner, and the problems with visibility and unsightliness the jumble of signs cause.
However, that corner is actually an NCDOT right-of-way and not really the county’s responsibility. Even if it was, most of the signs there would be allowed under Haywood County’s sign regulations, which state that off-premise directional signs do not require a permit as long as they meet the county’s regulations.
“They’re regulated but don’t require a permit,” Boyd said.
An off-premise sign is a sign posted in an area off of the property on which the business is located, and an off-premise directional sign is defined as “any off-premise sign indicating the location of or directions to a business, office or other activity.”
The county already exempts some off-premise signs from needing a permit, including political signs and yard sale signs, but off-premise directional signs are allowed as long as they do not exceed a maximum of 32 square feet in area per directional flow of traffic or exceed 10 feet in height. Off-premise directional signs cannot be illuminated and must not block line of sight for drivers.
“The situation at Lowe’s is about everything there is 32 square feet or less, so almost all of those signs there don’t require permits in the county; however, NCDOT guidelines require a permit if they advertise to a federal aid primary road. In addition to that, DOT doesn’t allow signs to advertise on a DOT right-of-way, and that’s what that area is in front of that fence.”
A reoccurring problem
With the exception of political signs — which are allowed as temporary signs during a 30-day period before the first day of early voting and 10 days after the primary election — “it’s illegal to put any signs within a DOT right-of-way,” said Jonathan Woodard, NCDOT district engineer.
Although posting signs illegally on a DOT right-of-way is a class 1 misdemeanor, Woodard said the department’s main concern isn’t to go after violators. Mostly, they just want illegal signs removed.
“It’s a safety issue for motorists, and that’s our top priority to address,” Woodard said, explaining that signs in right-of-ways are often blocking sight lines and can be distracting. “Next, it’s a maintenance issue, if we’re having to mow around them, or if we get a complaint, we try to address those issues.”
The DOT’s usual course of action when signs become a problem is to contact the owners through a letter informing them that the signs are in violation, and they need to be removed. If an owner doesn’t respond, the DOT will remove the signs and take them to their maintenance yard, where the owner can come to pick them up.
“We try to get them cleaned up as much as we can,” Woodard said, “but it’s a widespread problem and a continual issue. In some spots, people put them up as fast as you can take them down.”
The corner near Lowe’s is just such a spot.
Although the county assists the DOT in locating the owners of the signs posted there, Boyd said the problem continues.
“A lot of folks took their signs down, but within probably a two to three-week period, all these other new signs came up absolutely everywhere. Now it looks worse than it did before,” he said. “We’re in a precarious situation as to what we’re going to do.”
Brian Shuler, NCDOT outdoor advertising representative for this district, said figuring out the rules can be tricky, especially since some DOT right-of-ways are not recorded and town and county ordinances can sometimes be more stringent than the state and federal regulations.
“I believe the law states that with local government, if their ordinances are more strict than ours, they take precedence over ours,” Shuler said.
If anyone is not sure about where certain signs can and cannot be placed (there are many other regulations depending on the type of sign and location even for on-premises signs), or whether a permit is needed, Shuler urges them to contact the local town government first and then contact the DOT to see if a permit is needed from the state.
For signs that are allowed with a permit, the application process comes with an initial fee of $120, and the permit will either be approved or denied by the NCDOT. If it’s approved, the permit is issued and then there is a $60 annual fee to renew it.
The town ordinances throughout Haywood County are similar and basically follow along the lines of the DOT’s rules. Off-premise advertising signs are generally not allowed with the exception of temporary signs, such as political or yard sale signs.
And while all of the town’s make an effort to keep illegal signs from sprouting up, most of the town managers admit it is a reoccurring problem for them as well.
“We’ll do regular sign sweeps for signs that are in violation,” said Marcy Onieal, town manager of Waynesville.
Typically, like the DOT, the town will keep signs for a few days or after a political campaign is over to allow the owners time to pick them up, but they will throw them away if no one claims them.
Onieal said finding and prosecuting people who violate the sign laws is “not a high priority on our police department’s list,” and the town just wants people to be more aware of the rules before posting signs.
“It’s a constant battle to come by and pick up these illegal signs,” said Canton’s town manager Al Matthews, “but they rarely get fined for the simple reason it’s hard to track them down.”
“The town does do it’s best to enforce the ordinance,” added Maggie Valley’s town planner Nathan Clark, but as is the case with the other towns, it’s difficult to keep up.
One solution is to spread awareness of the sign ordinances, and when possible, make sure they are followed. For Haywood County Board of Realtors President Billy Case, keeping illegal signs out of the real estate business in Haywood County has been the challenge.
“None of the four municipalities allow any (real estate) signs except for on the homeowner’s property,” he said. “In the past, real estate brokers used directional signs, but they were illegal.”
Competing companies would all have directional signs on the same corners — sometimes as many as five — but “I think we have cleaned up a lot of that,” Case said.
Case said the board of realtors makes an effort to educate its members about appropriate signage. Not only are such off-premises signs illegal, but Case said they also don’t help to sell homes, and a jumble of signs is pretty unattractive.
“It’s a perception issue much like trash or litter or junk cars,” he said. “It’s very important for initial impressions for any area, and we’re a people, community-oriented business. We don’t want to be perceived as we’re creating a nuisance.”
Such educational efforts are appreciated by the county and the DOT, who don’t want the time and expense of continually taking down illegal signs.
“We need to make folks aware that they shouldn’t be doing that, and they need proper permits,” Boyd said.
Woodard agreed, and said, “We don’t have to notify the owner (of the illegal sign), we can just remove them, but we try to notify them both to spread awareness and get them to practice good business practices.”
For questions about placing signs, call the local town hall and/or the NCDOT at 497-7333.