His verdict? Sylva’s sign fees are way too high, and it’s hurting businesses.
“A business in downtown Sylva that has a 15-year-old sign, if they’re looking at upgrading not only are they having to pay for the cost of the sign, but they’re having to pay for a permit that is so high they’re less inclined to do it,” Watras said. “I’ve seen businesses waiting until their sign falls down before replacing it.”
Simply having a sign fee isn’t what sparked Watras’ criticism. Most towns have them. But Sylva’s rate is much higher than the other towns around it, and that bothers Watras. A Haywood County resident as of six months ago, Watras lived in Sylva for more than 10 years before that and paints signs in Asheville, Andrews, and everywhere in between — including Sylva.
“I honestly think the fees are disproportionate,” he said.
In Sylva, a double-sided sign — regardless of how big or how small — carries a permit fee of $200. Compare that to Waynesville, where the rate is based on size and uses a formula of $2 per square foot with a $20 minimum. There, a four-by-four-foot sign would carry a $32 fee. In Franklin, the fee for that same 16-square-foot sign would be $44. It would be $25 in Bryson City, $50 in Cashiers and $100 in Brevard, Webster or Dillsboro.
Watras combed the fee schedules of towns from Black Mountain to Murphy, and even the most expensive fees for a 16-square-foot double-sided sign were only half of what’s charged in Sylva.
“I’m trying to propose some potential changes for that,” he said. “A different way of calculating their fees.”
During the public comment period of the Thursday, April 7, town meeting, Watras plans to give the board an overview of his concept, which would include options using a base fee of either $75 or $100 with an additional 3 to 5 percent per dollar of sign value. The plan would generally result in fees placing Sylva on the high end compared to surrounding towns, but its fees would come within range of the municipalities around it.
The town board has mixed opinions on Watras’ perspective.
“All of the towns in that list have a much higher tax rate than we do, so they have a base, but that $200 fee isn’t just for the fee,” said Commissioner Greg McPherson. “It’s for enforcement of the ordinance.”
Ordinances cost money to enforce, and permit fees go toward that cost. Sylva has an interlocal agreement with Jackson County for planning and enforcement services, for which it pays $20,000 per year. In the fourth quarter of 2015, permit fees — which include, but are not limited to, sign permit fees — covered only $2,000 of the $5,000 quarterly cost. In the third quarter, they covered $2,280. So, the argument could be made that permit fees aren’t high enough, as revenues from the various permits the town issues don’t cover the cost of enforcement.
“We don’t want to have a fee that makes it difficult for businesses to operate, but we do have costs associated with having a zoning ordinance,” said Town Manager Paige Dowling.
And, pointed out Commissioner Harold Hensley, the sign fee is a one-time deal.
“That’s not per week or per month or per year,” he said. “You pay that one time as long as you own that business, so to me that’s not outrageous.”
“A business coming to Sylva has to do its due diligence on what the fee is, and that $200 has to be wrapped into their business plan — and a 16-square-foot sign is massive,” McPherson said.
If anything, perhaps, the gap between enforcement costs and fees collected shows that fees are lower than they really should be. That’s the conclusion of Commissioner David Nestler — but that doesn’t necessarily mean he believes the fees should go up, or even that he’s against them going down.
“They’re way higher than the towns around us, and that’s a problem whether or not we’re charging enough or not,” he said. “It’s not smart to charge more than all the towns and counties around us.”
Regardless of whether the fee levels are justifiable on paper or not, the impacts trickle down to private business owners, who are ultimately the ones in control of their storefront and how it affects Sylva’s public face.
Harry Alter, owner of Harry Alter Books on Main Street, said that the fee levels have certainly given him pause.
“The current ordinance does discourage me from changing anything,” he said. In addition to the above-the-awning sign proclaiming his store’s presence, he’s got a couple of little signs under the awning that simply say “books.” Those small signs carry the same $200 fee as the large, double-sided sign hanging above.
“It is a shock when you’re first starting a business, having to pay for all the signs at once,” said Alter, whose business has been inside city limits for about two-and-a-half years.
Melissa Wilcox, who’s owned Melissa’s Backstreet Takeout for one year as of March 30, is still in the midst of that shock. She wants to replace the signs that were in place from the business’s previous owner, but that $200 fee, in addition to the cost of the sign itself, has kept her from doing so.
“I’m a single person and a sole proprietor, so it’s just me,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot of extra cash in there. The fees have kept me from changing signs or putting up a new sign.”
The feeling is not necessarily unanimous, however. Steve Baxley, who opened Baxley’s Chocolates in October alongside his wife Beth and daughter Lauren, said the fee didn’t really faze him.
“To be honest with you, we didn’t really think about it because we weren’t really looking at anywhere else but here,” he said. “We accepted it as a cost of getting open.”
Other costs in Sylva are low. For example, property tax is set at 30 cents per $100 as compared to 43.8 cents per $100 in Waynesville, though the Sylva board is discussing a tax hike of 6 or 7 cents this year. And while state law said that permit fees must go to enforcement, regardless of the property tax rate, that’s not to say that property taxes can’t go to cover enforcement. Often, they do. So, said some commissioners, with a lower tax rate it stands to reason that fees might be higher to pay for a greater share of the enforcement than they otherwise might.
Town commissioners won’t set the fee schedule for the upcoming 2016-17 budget year until their May 5 meeting, but between now and then Watras — with the help of Sylva’s business community — hopes to bend their ears to see it his way.