For some people, spending free time cross-referencing town fee schedules would be as boring as watching paint dry. But for Tyler Watras, a sign painter by trade, watching paint dry isn’t so bad, and delving into the world of sign permit fees is more likely to induce passion than yawns.
Franklin officials thought the controversy over banners would end when the board of aldermen passed an ordinance last year allowing them to be hung over Main Street to promote upcoming events.
Giant blow-up gorillas, bouquets of balloons, plastic banners strung from awnings or poles and billowing fabric figures piped full of air — these previously banned forms of attention-grabbing signage could soon be gracing Waynesville’s businesses under a proposed slate of sign ordinance changes.
A new fixture made an appearance on the sidewalks of Frog Level last week: a giant green frog waving and mugging for motorists as they tooled through this small business district on the outskirts of downtown Waynesville.
Signs are businesses’ equivalent to nuclear weapons.
“Everybody wants them, but you have to agree to live with them,” said Waynesville Town Planner Paul Benson. “I think what we need is a consensus on what is a reasonable approach.”
Walmart in Sylva was asking for the town board to grant them an exemption for a larger storefront sign. But instead of getting a pass on the existing ordinance, the town board decided to change the sign law as it applies to everyone.
Sylva town leaders once again have a public hearing on the docket to decide the fate of oversized Walmart signs, but are once again wondering whether representatives of Walmart will stand them up.
Ron Rosendahl took the time to count every single sign greeting the main road that dissects the town of Maggie Valley. He found 400 signs squeezed into less than five miles of Soco Road.
According to Rosendahl, only 26 of the hundreds were real estate signs.
The unofficial count was inspired by town’s crackdown on oversized real estate signs earlier this summer.
Rosendahl, a real estate agent in Maggie, argues that real estate signs — which comprise about 6 percent of all signage on Soco Road — aren’t the real problem.
Signs advertising motels, shops and other businesses far outnumber real estate signs and do more to degrade the town’s appearance, according to Rosendahl.
“Some businesses had as much as nine signs out front.” Rosendahl.
“The signage throughout the limits of Maggie Valley is pretty much over the top,” said Ben Glover, another real estate agent in town.
Nathan Clark, Maggie’s planning director, calls it an apples and oranges comparison, arguing that real estate signs are differentiated from other types of signs in the town’s ordinance.
Clark has encountered massive real estate banners — sometimes as big as 72 square feet, about nine times the size of what’s allowed — along with two or more “for sale” signs on a single piece of property. Clark came across multiple “for sale” signs crowded onto the tiniest of properties to grab drivers’ attention.
Maggie Valley officials worry too many real estate signs will signify a dying town to passersby. Allowing bigger signs on abandoned buildings would likely set off a negative impression.
“Larger signs will make the town look like it is for sale,” said Alderman Phil Aldridge at a planning board meeting in early September.
Glover agreed he didn’t “want people driving through town to think Maggie Valley is dying.”
With excesses in real estate signs growing increasingly common, Clark sent out a friendly reminder to real estate agents earlier this summer about the sign ordinance.
Most complied, but Rosendahl and Glover at Prudential 1st Choice Realtors decided to seek change.
The current ordinance only allows 8-square-feet signs for properties that are fewer than 3 acres or have less than 500 feet of road frontage. Only larger properties are allowed to sport 16-square-foot real estate signs.
Rosendahl argues that the town should allow all commercial real estate signs to measure up to 16-square-feet, what he considers standard for that type of property.
At the very least, real estate signs need to be larger so that they can compete with the hundreds of other types of signs, Rosendahl argues.
“That’s why we need bigger signs, so at least we can get a fair shake,” said Rosendahl.
Meanwhile, Bob Knoedler, a planning board member, questioned how effective real estate signs actually are at selling commercial property. Knoedler said most entrepreneurs set out on an intentional search for available commercial property, rather than driving along looking for empty buildings or lots on the side of the road.
Rosendahl said, however, the signs are effective, and they would be even more effective if they were larger.
Real estate signs are more visible in residential districts since people drive at slower speeds. But when drivers are racing past at 35 to 55 miles per hour on Soco Road, they are less likely to see an 8-square-foot sign, Rosendahl said.
“You only have one chance for people to see your sign,” said Rosendahl. “Why not get the sign out there? Why not get it sold?”
Meanwhile, Glover worries that the planning board doesn’t realize that real estate agents make an important contribution to the community. They recruit new businesses, bringing jobs and tax revenues into Maggie Valley.
“We’re not trying to add to the problem of having too many signs,” said Glover. “In fact, we’d love to have our signs disappear.”
While they might be up for a month or two years, Glover points out that real estate signs are temporary. As a member of the Haywood Tourism Development Authority board, Glover said he’s not in favor of anything that will drive people away or damage the town economically.
“I just want everyone to have a little bit of an open mind,” said Glover, adding he is perfectly willing to compromise with the board.
If 16-square-feet is excessive, Glover said 12- or 10-square-feet may not be. Either way, Glover said it’s time to objectively revisit the issue and hear something other than “Nope, nope, nope. We got too many signs.”
Rosendahl said he was amazed by some of the comments that planning board members made to him.
“They don’t want to make any change. They’d rather say ‘no’ to everything,” said Rosendahl. “It was a little discouraging to me.”
But Clark said the planning board has been open-minded and devoted two meetings to discussing the issue. The board is planning on making slight changes to the sign ordinance, such as allowing a second sign if it advertises an open house. But Clark doesn’t foresee a vote by the planning board to adopt Rosendahl’s suggestion taking place any time soon.
“They just thought at the end of the day what is currently on the books is the most equitable,” said Clark. “It’s not like they went in and completely stonewalled the situation. It’s not like we woke up one morning and said ‘You know what, real estate signs suck. Let’s get rid of all of them.’”
Anyone approaching Waynesville from Russ Avenue has likely appreciated the distant view of downtown, its quaint brick skyline marked by steeples and nested in the surrounding mountains — along with the less appealing gigantic yellow “M” superimposed over the scene.