County eyes ordinance prohibiting some digital signage as ‘non-conforming use’

City, County, still seeking intergovernmental billboard policy

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In April, Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor suggested that officials from the County government meet with officials from Bartow’s municipal governments to iron out some streamlined, intergovernmental guidelines on digital billboards.

Three months down the line, however, Cartersville City Planner David Hardegree said such meetings have yet to take place. 

“We were supposed to have coordination meetings with the County to try to go over that and work out those differences,” Hardegree said. “Basically, it’s setback from the right of way and it’s also spacing requirements between billboards — the City has one requirement, the County has another requirement and the State has a third requirement, and all of those requirements don’t always jive together when you need them to.”

Bartow County Administrator Peter Olson also said that representatives from the County and City have yet to have talks about a “unifying” policy on digital billboards.

“I’ll remind our staff that they should sit down with City staff and try to work on coming up with something cohesive,” Olson said. “I’ve heard anecdotally that various people in the City are a little not liking their procedure, either, with their [board of zoning appeals] granting billboards, too … it’s probably ripe for them to look at it, too, if they can get any traction going up the chain over there.”

Over the last year, the County government has gone full circle on digital billboards. In February, Commissioner Taylor approved an ordinance amendment allowing applicants to file conditional use permits for such billboards, which bypassed Bartow County Planning Commission review altogether and became subject to his direct approval or denial.

Fast forward almost six months later and now the County is considering another ordinance amendment that prohibits digital billboards altogether, with such billboards within the County becoming “nonconforming uses” as soon as the amendment is approved.

“We’re trying to allow reasonable business opportunity without overwhelming the community aesthetically with too many,” Olson said. “People in the sign industry have told us if you get too many, everybody gets hurt — there’s too much supply and not enough demand.”

With both the City of Cartersville and Bartow County utilizing their own sets of rules and regulations on digital billboards — and the two jurisdictions weaving in and out of each other, geographically — what is and isn't required can sometimes become a bit confusing. That’s especially true, Olson said, of the billboards abutting the State’s highways, which are also subject to an additional level of government oversight from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT.)

“Any applicant's got to both comply with us and GDOT,” Olson said. “So we could, for example, say every parcel could have a digital billboard, but that doesn’t fly with GDOT … then they’d go down to GDOT and find out you can only have one per mile. It’s their road right of way, so they still have control beyond us."

But as Olson noted, that stipulation can work both ways. 

“Conversely, when we say if our local zoning doesn’t [allow] any digital billboards, then their regulation is irrelevant,” Olson said. “You can’t go and say ‘Well, they won’t let me, but the State will.’ So you’ve got to get the local permission, then you’ve got to comply with the State regulations.”

From his perspective, Hardegree said there doesn’t seem to be any municipal-level efforts to reduce the number of billboards within the City of Cartersville.

“A lot of the billboards that are there now are grandfathered in and there’s not a lot of, as far as I can tell, pushback from elected officials on reducing the quantity of billboards," he said. "They definitely have concerns about the size of billboards, and the brightness of billboards, those are certainly concerns. But I think everybody understands the value that billboards can bring to the local economy with the ability to advertise.”

As for potential “unifying” guidelines, Olson said GDOT’s digital billboard standards seem quite reasonable. In fact, he said the County has already incorporated them to some extent in the local government’s existing ordinances. 

“We wanted to have some setbacks and not have an intense concentration,” he said. “We don’t want to see that kind of over-saturation of digital billboards, and look like Vegas or Times Square with too much.”

When the County’s new billboard ordinance went into effect in spring, Olson said a deluge of applications came pouring in. Yet while a handful of permits were approved, to date, he said actual digital billboard construction within the County's jurisdiction has remained rather light.

“We’ll monitor the situation for maybe the next year or so before we decide if we’re going to do anything different,” Olson said. “All the ones that were permitted in that spate of activity, many of them haven’t even been erected yet, so we still haven’t been able to assess the impact on the environment and the market.”

In the meantime, Olson said he’d like to see County and City officials “harmonize” on at least establishing some aesthetic criteria for the 41 corridor. “It’s on the to-do list,” he said, “but it’s not one that’s getting a whole lot of energy right now.”

On the City side of the equation, Hardegree said there may be a “very slight reduction” in the number of billboards approved in the municipal jurisdiction, but an immediate change in quantity isn’t likely to happen until “we can look at the numbers and work with the County on, potentially, some policy changes on those items.”

He said he’s optimistic the City and County governments can convene in the months ahead and begin discussions about crafting those long-awaited, intergovernmental guidelines on digital billboards throughout Bartow. 

“Hopefully, we can have some of those meetings this year,” he said, “and work towards resolving those differences.”