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Sign of clutter? Mayor wants to review sign code, admits its flaws

Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat — Signs along a stretch of the frontage road off U.S. 61 South compete for attention from potential customers looking up high and down low.

NATCHEZ — Wendy’s restaurant may have one small sign with a very big message for Natchez.

The new fast food joint — which was clearly the most popular place in town last week — didn’t attract customers to its newly opened location on Seargent S. Prentiss Drive with a towering billboard atop a 35-foot pole. Yet, the customers came, wrapping around the restaurant, even causing minor traffic woes.

The restaurant’s small, low-to-the-ground sign atop a brick stand could be the wave of the future, Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said.

“You’ll find that the universal attitude in communities across America is to eliminate sign clutter,” he said.

Brown doesn’t deny that his city has a problem with such clutter, and he hopes to fix it.

Sign below the line

Other Natchez businesses have found success for decades with signs that name their business sitting only eye-level off the ground.

The sign for the gas station Go Mart on Seargent S. Prentiss, owned by Ward and Tom Graning, is a ground-mounted monument sign.

“It has a good look,” Tom Graning said. “That was mainly why we did it, we liked the look of the small monument sign.

The newest business to open in Natchez, Wendy’s restaurant, has only a small, low-to-the-ground sign.

“You ride into places like Madison, and you see the signs and businesses, and it looks good. I wish we could get to that kind of look, but I also wish we had that kind of demand for business so it would constitute that kind of ordinance.”

Despite the smaller market, Tom Graning said he does think Natchez has some cleaning up to do.

“There are a lot of places that have banners up, and it just doesn’t look very good,” he said. “I understand having signage for your business, but it still needs to look good.”

It’s only a sign, right?

Natchez Pilgrimage Tours Director Marsha Colson said she knows firsthand what kind of impression signage makes to tourists in town.

“In other major tourist destinations, some of them small, quaint towns like ours, I’ve noticed the impression that signage makes, whether for good or bad,” she said.

Like Graning, many Mississippians immediately think of Madison — a suburb of Jackson — as a city that makes a good impression to those passing through.

City ordinances regulate not only signs but architectural standards for everything from gas stations to four-star hotels in Madison.

The city’s sign ordinance — in place for 30 years — requires signs not be more than six-feet tall and also be under a maximum square footage.

“It’s all part of preserving your landscape,” Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler said. “When you have businesses racing to have a larger sign so their sign can be seen over their neighbor’s sign, that’s when you really have a problem.”

Butler, mayor for 32 years, said establishing tight rules for business wasn’t easy, though.

“When we went to public hearing, we had a lot of opposition to it and a lot of support for it also,” she said.

Go Mart, a gas station on U.S. 61 South, installed its ground sign years ago with the appearance of the business in mind, owner Tom Graning said.

In the end, Butler said as long as businesses have a level playing field, the sign ordinance works.

“When it’s all said and done, the businesses are monitoring each other,” she said. “They’re policing each other, making sure one’s sign does not exceed another’s.”

Butler said Madison’s sign ordinance and its enforcement of the ordinance is no different than what is being done by communities across the country.

“What we’re doing in Madison is new to Mississippi, but it didn’t stop the largest retailer in the world,” she said, referring to the town’s Walmart.

“We have a Walmart that is brick, we have a Lowe’s, we have a Home Depot that is not orange, we have a Dick’s (Sporting Goods), we have an Office Depot, Stein Mart, Best Buy, Texaco, Shell, Exxon … none of those businesses have signage like they do in other places,” Butler said.

And there are no exceptions in Madison when it comes to signs.

“If you have a six-feet height requirement, you cannot give somebody 10 feet, because the next person is going to want 12 feet and then 14 feet, and then you’ve lost your sign ordinance,” she said.

Butler, who owns a house in Natchez, said she believes Natchez has the potential to elevate itself higher, starting with lower signs.

“We love Natchez, and I believe it could be another Savannah (Ga.), or Charleston (S.C.),” she said.

Assigning the code

In Natchez, the sign ordinance has long been debated, and inconsistent codes and enforcement have created a skyline of the entry ways into town cluttered with signs.

Kristin Budzak, the marketing manager for Carlisle Corporation, which owns the new Wendy’s said their company designed the low-to-the-ground brick sign to ensure it complied with the newest sign specifications in the city’s development code.

Budzak said the sign is also part of a new restaurant design for Wendy’s, of which she said the Natchez location is the first of its kind in Mississippi.

But for a business trying to determine exactly which city code applies to it, things get a bit gray.

Most businesses along the entry ways to town fall under the city’s business district codes, which are divided into B-1, B-2, B-3 and B-4.

The Wendy’s is in the highway business district, or B-4 district. The freestanding sign objectives for B-4 businesses in the development code specifies that freestanding signs shall be ground-mounted and not exceed an overall height of six feet.

The development code was adopted in December 2007 and went into effect January 2008.

The sign ordinance in the city’s code of ordinances — different from the development code — does not address B-3 or B-4 zoning districts because they did not exist when it was adopted in 1997.

According to the code, signs in B-1 and B-2 business districts shall not exceed 30 feet in height.

Parts of the development code conflict with parts of the code of ordinances, Historic Natchez Foundation Director Mimi Miller said.

Mayor Brown said he wants review of the codes and ordinances once a new city planner is hired. The city is currently reviewing applications for the job.

One problem that may present itself with new codes and ordinances is that existing signs would be grandfathered in under any new ordinance.

Signs in the city have been grandfathered in since the 1960s, Miller said.

Any new signs that are constructed or any changes to existing signs must meet the current code.

Brown said as the advertising market changes, signage will change, and he said the city will be looking into the best possible way to clean up signage in the city.

“We’re not going to be sign police right out of the gate, but we will be dealing with it within our ordinances as we redevelop our code with the help of our new planner,” he said.

Several ways to clean up signage in Natchez could be considered, Brown said.

For example, he said, signage grandfathered in under a new ordinance could only be grandfathered in for a certain period of time.

“There could be creative solutions to that kind of problem, if you want to call it (a problem),” Brown said. “It has to be an ordinance that everybody could live with and uses common sense.”

That common sense, Brown said, could be having different requirements for different types of venues, larger signs allowed on the bypasses, as opposed to smaller signs in the historic district.

The city, Brown said, has to be sympathetic to the business community and understand that signage is the way for the businesses to advertise.

“If you do something that is perceived to be heavy-handed to the business community, there’s always a little rebellion associated with it,” he said. “Consequentially, you’ll find members of the board saying, ‘Well it’s OK, let them keep that sign, we have to be business friendly.’ I think that is how some of it gets overlooked or ignored.”

In the same respect, Brown said, the city has to have uniform and consistent enforcement of a sign ordinance.

“Consistent sign enforcement will be the key,” Brown said.