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BOC hears debate on future of I-20
County and IDA receive ability to issue million in low-interest bonds
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The future of signage along the I-20 corridor was debated Tuesday night, as the desires of business owners were matched against the county’s desire to maintain an aesthetically pleasing, uncluttered entrance to its community.

Jack Morgan leases his land along I-20 to businesses, and he wants to put up more signs on his parcel to promote those 18 businesses, but under the county’s current sign ordinance, only one 150-square-foot sign is allowed per parcel along I-20.

Morgan, whose 18.11 acres of property lie on the north side of I-20 bordered by Old Atlanta Highway between Greers Dairy Farm Road and Fieldcrest Drive, already has three signs along I-20, which had existed before the ordinance change and were, therefore, grandfathered into the new law. 

He originally requested to have three new 165 sq. ft. signs put up, which would have created a total of six signs. One sign is allowed per road frontage of a property, so he wanted to take the signs that could have been placed on Greers Dairy Farm Road and Old Atlanta Highway and put them on I-20 instead.

After the Board of Zoning Appeals denied his request, and after meeting with Smart Growth Newton County representatives, who are also against the request, Morgan changed his variance request to include three total signs. The grandfathered signs, which are smaller than 150 sq. ft., would be replaced with new 150 sq. ft. signs and the existing sign of that size would be moved and refurbished.

Morgan said signs on the other roads would be of little value, and I-20 would be the optimal place.

"Newspapers are good advertising, but signs help, and in tough economic times we need all resources," Morgan said.

One of Morgan’s tenants spoke in favor of the additional signs.

"I really need the sign, because I need to grab hold. I don’t want to have to move to Rockdale County," he said.

Smart Growth President Jonathan Paschal spoke in opposition to the request and said the sign ordinance doesn’t allow this and the county’s recently passed 2028 Comprehensive Plan clearly states that I-20 is to remain uncluttered.

"I’ve heard a lot of coulda, shoulda, woulda, but this is not complicated. The question is whether or not you should allow an owner to put three new signs on I-20. The answer should be no," Paschal said. "Tonight you have to decide whether to support the zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan. Your staff has said that the variance meets no criteria. Same with the Board of Zoning Appeals."

Resident Betty Bledsoe, a private citizen who lives on the east side of the county, said allowing the variance could set a dangerous standard.

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

County Attorney Tommy Craig agreed that approving the variance could set a precedent and pointed out that Morgan had previously sued the county over the sign ordinance, and the county had won in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The county has made investments to defend this sign ordinance," Craig said.

Commissioner Mort Ewing also brought up the past and made it clear that he feels this issue has already been decided in favor of the current sign ordinance.

Commissioner Tim Fleming said the situation wasn’t so simple.

"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.

Commissioner J.C. Henderson, whose district encompasses Morgan’s property, said we would like to talk with more citizens and allow Smart Growth and Morgan to sit down and try to reach a compromise.

Morgan said he was agreeable to that and the BOC voted unanimously to table the issue. However, Smart Growth was not asked if they felt a compromise could be reached, and Paschal said after the meeting that he felt that Smart Growth had already offered the most acceptable compromise: to allow Morgan to refurbish the existing grandfathered signs.

Commissioner Earnest Simmons, who could be the deciding vote, said both sides need to work together.

"There has to be some give and take or we could end up losing everything," he said.

In other news, as part of the Federal stimulus package, Newton County and the Industrial Development Authority will have the ability to issue $10 million of low-interest rate bonds to help spur public and private investment.

Newton County won’t receive any money directly, but if it does issue bonds to raise money for public projects, then the 45 percent of the interest that would have to be paid back on those bonds would be covered by the federal government. Any money raised could be used for public projects like water and sewer lines and other facilities.

The IDA could issue up to $6 million of bonds and use that money to loan to private businesses to expand their operations. The benefit of these bonds is that the IDA does not have to pay any taxes on the interest accrued on the bonded money.

The BOC approved a resolution to accept the allocation, but neither Newton County nor the IDA is under any obligation to issue the bonds. IDA Chairperson Frank Turner Jr. said even if no bonds end up being issued it wouldn’t hurt the county or IDA to add more tools to fight the economic downturn. Newton County received more than some surrounding counties, because of its high foreclosure and job loss rates.