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Posted: November 20, 2009 12:30 a.m.

Morgan drops ordinance challenge

Still feels sign ordinance is anti-business

The county’s sign ordinance remains intact and Jack "Buddy" Morgan has found an alternative to putting up more roadside signs on Interstate 20.

Instead of seeking an ordinance variance to put more signs on his lone parcel of property along I-20, Morgan has decided to divide his land into two parcels and place one sign on each.

At the Oct. 20 BOC meeting, Morgan requested a variance to allow him to place three 150-square-foot-signs along his 18.11 acres of commercial property on I-20. The current sign ordinance allows only one sign, up to 150-square-feet, to be placed along I-20 per property parcel.

The county Board of Zoning Appeals denied the request, so Morgan appealed to the BOC. The discussion pitted the desires of business owners against the desire to maintain an aesthetically pleasing, uncluttered entrance to the community.

Because Morgan leases that land to 18 different businesses, he felt he needed more signage. He already had three signs, but two of the signs were smaller than 150-square-feet and had been grandfathered into the updated sign ordinance.

Representatives of Smart Growth Newton County argued that the sign ordinance was created for a reason. President Jonathan Paschal said the county’s 2028 Comprehensive Plan clearly states that I-20 is to remain uncluttered.

The commissioners were also split with Mort Ewing arguing strongly in favor of the ordinance. He said the county had spent a lot of time and money defending the ordinance against a lawsuit brought by Morgan earlier this decade. The case went all the way to U.S. Court of Appeals, where the county’s ordinance was upheld.

However, Commissioner Tim Fleming said the ordinance could be hurting business.

"We like to talk out of both sides of our mouth. We encourage small business to come, but at the end of the day we hinder businesses’ ability to flourish," he said previously.

The BOC decided to table the appeal to give the two sides a chance to reach a compromise.

After a couple more meetings, Morgan has decided to work around the ordinance by dividing his property into two parcels. The lone 150-square-foot sign will remain up on the one parcel, and a 75-square-foot sign will be put up on the other parcel. The two grandfathered signs will be taken down and some wall signs will be placed on warehouses along I-20, in accordance with the ordinance.

Smart Growth representative Frank Turner Jr. said that outcome was acceptable, and his organization was only concerned about protecting the ordinance’s integrity. Turner said the group doesn’t normally get involved in individual cases, but its members felt this case could have more serious repercussions.

On Tuesday, the BOC voted to approve Morgan’s withdrawal of his previous request.

Morgan said it was the best result that could have been reached under the circumstances, but he still feels the ordinance is anti-business.

"If we want that sales tax to be increased in Newton, we will have to be more business friendly in our ordinances. The sign ordinance in particular is a big stumbling block to business. We need to be able to get some exposure," Morgan said. "I-20 is one of the biggest economic generators Newton County has."

However, at the Oct. 20 meeting, Smart Growth member Betty Bledsoe said keeping the community clean was equally important, and the county shouldn’t set a precedent.

"We would end up like Rockdale County. People say they can always tell when they’re leaving Newton County," Bledsoe said. "We don’t want to be another metro county."

Morgan said that wall signs are nice, but in his experience roadside signs on I-20 are the most effective.

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