Walmart’s existing signs are taller and bigger than the town’s sign guidelines allow. They were put up before the current rules were in place, and thus were grandfathered in. Technically, if the signs are replaced they are supposed to come into compliance with the current rules. But Walmart wants to make its new signs just as tall and just as big as its existing ones that were grandfathered in.
The Sylva planning board voted unanimously to deny the Walmart plea for leniency. But the final say rests with the Sylva town board. They delayed a vote until a future meeting, but at least two town board members disagreed with the planning board’s recommendation and think Walmart should get the exception.
“They have had the sign for 17 years,” said Town Board Member Chris Matheson. “Suddenly because they want to make it look better it needs to be torn down because it does not comply.”
Matheson said the town’s sign ordinance needs to be reviewed, in part, because it was written more than a decade ago at a time when the economy was doing better than it is now. The economic climate today should give businesses more flexibility in their sign size to help them attract customers.
Sylva Town Board member Harold Hensley agreed that the ordinance may be harming the local economy.
“I’m not one to see us stand by and nit-pick a sign,” Hensley said.
The planning board began reviewing the town’s 1998 sign ordinance last summer but has not yet completed the process.
Meanwhile, Town Board Member Lynda Sossamon and the owner of Radio Shack pointed out that other businesses sought similar exemptions of the sign rules and were denied, so why make an exception for Walmart?
Walmart’s request for a bigger sign in Sylva isn’t the first to cross the desk of town planners in Western North Carolina. In 2006, Walmart requested, and was granted, permission to erect signs larger than typically allowed in Waynesville — although Waynesville made Walmart come down significantly from its original request. In 2011, the company applied for and got similar exemptions in Franklin. In both cases, Walmart argued the size of its massive shopping complex justified the larger size.
However, Sylva Town Attorney Eric Ridenour said giving breaks to certain businesses and not others may bring the Sylva board into treacherous legal territory. He said it’s best to follow the law put in place and let it run its course, eventually bringing all the town’s signs into compliance.
“No matter what your sign ordinance is everybody is going to want something bigger because it attracts attention,” Ridenour said. “It’s not like you’re not going to know that Walmart is there.”
Walmart’s existing sign along the road is about 34-feet tall. But the town’s current sign regulations would cap it at a maximum of 20 feet. Also, based on eyeball estimates, its sign face appears slightly larger than the allowed 64 square feet.
In addition to the sign in the parking lot, Walmart wants to change the signs on the wall of the building, including the flagship decal.
Walmart wants the primary sign on its facade to be 298 square feet, although the town’s sign rules only allow a maximum of 96 square feet. It also wants three smaller ones along the face of the building.
John Jeleniewski, who works as the town’s code enforcer, recommended a compromise to the planning board. He suggested it hold fast on forcing the company to lower its pole sign.
But he recommended granting Walmart the exemption for the signs on the face of the building. He said his recommendation, though not heeded by the board, came down to aesthetics in part. A 96-square-foot sign on a 500-foot long building would look out of place and is not the intent of the law.
“We’re trying to reduce the eye pollution,” said. “But, to the other extreme, this is a very small sign on a large building — instead of a very large sign on small building.”
Walmart representatives did not attend the town meeting and did not respond to requests for comment.