Cars pass by a banner, above,  at the intersection of East Franklin and Devereaux streets in Natchez. Some business owners obtain permits for such temporary signs, but many banners and commercial signs erected in the city are put up without a permit or are left hanging for more than 30 days as prescribed the city sign ordinance.
Cars pass by a banner, above, at the intersection of East Franklin and Devereaux streets in Natchez. Some business owners obtain permits for such temporary signs, but many banners and commercial signs erected in the city are put up without a permit or are left hanging for more than 30 days as prescribed the city sign ordinance.

City planner says department lacks manpower for enforcement

Published 12:21am Sunday, September 8, 2013

BY LINDSEY SHELTON AND VERSHAL HOGAN

NATCHEZ — Laws are only as good as those willing to enforce them.

The city may not be unwilling to enforce some of its own laws, but officials say budget and staffing constraints mean some laws — such as the city’s sign ordinance — sometimes get overlooked.

A seemingly glaring example of this is the enforcement of the city’s rules for temporary signs such as banners.

City Planner Frankie Legaux said the planning department generally addressed sign ordinance violations when the city receives complaints about a particular sign.

 The sign ordinance also restricts a business to one temporary commercial sign at a time. Multiple banners, above, hang on a fence on Homochitto Street.
The sign ordinance also restricts a business to one temporary commercial sign at a time. Multiple banners, above, hang on a fence on Homochitto Street.

“With only one code enforcement officer, we just don’t have the manpower to have someone drive around looking for sign ordinance violations,” she said. “We could get in the car right now and probably go find 40 or 50 sign ordinance (violations).”

The city currently only has one of its two code enforcement officers on the job because code enforcement officer Willie B. Jones was placed on administrative leave following his arrest for charges of conspiracy and insurance fraud, apparently unrelated to his work with the city.

In addition to short staffing, Mayor Butch Brown admits that enforcement of the city’s sign ordinance has suffered in the push to enforce ordinances related to overgrown lots, litter and dilapidated housing.

“It’s not lower on my priority list,” he said. “It’s because we are emphasizing litter, grass and demolition by neglect so much.”

Go Mart co-owner Tom Graning said the lack of enforcement of the sign ordinance is not a recent development, though. Graning said he has in the past called the city about sign violations and nothing was ever done.

Brown said he knows enforcement of the city sign ordinance is an ongoing problem. Brown said he plans to launch an initiative in the next week that will call on Natchez police officers to respond to sign ordinance violations if the code enforcement officer cannot get to them.

Brown said officers will be briefed on the sign ordinance and will give business owners a 24-hour period to correct the violations.

“If they don’t, the code enforcement officer will return with a (police) officer and issue a citation,” he said.

When asked if he thought police officers could take time away from police business to enforce the sign ordinance, Brown said he knows that sometimes NPD will be too busy to do that.

“We do have times that those guys are patrolling where they can, in fact, stop, give the warning and explain to people what’s going to happen if they don’t comply,” he said.

Some of the problem may be that residents and business owners are not aware that the city requires permits for temporary signs such as banners.

Legaux said the signs must be permitted and adhere to certain size restrictions, by city code.

Most of the time, Legaux said, banners are allowed for 30 days, but sometimes longer. No more than five permits for banners are to be issued to an individual or business in a year.

Banners must be removed no later than two days after the event it is promoting is over.

Exceptions are made in the ordinance, Legaux said, for signs that promote something that is for the public good, such as vaccinations or hospital services.

The sign ordinance is 36-pages long and part of the city code of ordinances originally adopted in 1997 and was last revised in 2007.

The 563-page code of ordinances outlines everything from how the city levies and collects its taxes, how the municipal court and municipal judge works, the city’s corporate boundaries to fire prevention and protection, building code and ordinances, planning and preservation codes, litter traffic and other ordinances.

Brown said the city would soon create handouts or some type of easy-to-read literature for residents and business owners to learn about the sign ordinance and how it affects their events or businesses.

Some local business owners aren’t thrilled with the idea of a sign ordinance at all.

Jeanie Cauthen, owner of Delta Rentals on U.S. 61 South, said she believes enforcement of sign code is just a part of a larger problem of government overregulation of business.

“You have to be able to put out something that says this is where my business is, this is where we are,” she said. “They strangle you with the red tape.”

Ernest Jones, owner of EJ’s Coins on John R. Junkin Drive, can point to a half dozen sign ordinance violations from his shop.

While those violations are still up, Jones said someone from code enforcement told him he couldn’t use a ground-based marquee board because it was distracting to drivers on the road even though it didn’t — and couldn’t — light up.

“They said it was distracting, but light up gas station signs on the side of the road are distracting — all signs are meant to grab someone’s attention,” he said.

Jones said he had moved his business from the historic district to have a little more freedom with what he wanted to do with the shop — including signage.

“When I was downtown, people would drive by and not know what was in that building,” he said.

But if the city is going to start enforcing its code, Jones said, it should prioritize that enforcement.

“What is it that makes a city look ugly — signs or caved in houses and grown in lots?” he said. “If you want to make Natchez look good, make it look good, don’t worry about people’s signs.”

Graning said the problem is not the sign ordinance, but the enforcement of it. He said he has no problem with the sign ordinance.

“I agree with having a sign ordinance,” he said. “If you don’t have one, (the city) could really look trashy.”