Asheville City Council

“Our 1990 ordinance simply has not kept up with current sign technology.”

City Attorney Bob Oast

They pop up overnight like weeds, their big, bright letters practically screaming their messages at passing traffic. And until now, there was little to be done about the temporary signs planted in city rights of way that advertise everything from weight loss to roof work.

But revisions to the city code approved by the Asheville City Council at its March 14 formal session will empower staff to uproot those so-called “snipe” signs on the spot. And though the changes were quickly approved, they represented several months’ worth of discussion, research and retooling by City Attorney Bob Oast.

Under the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, such signs were already illegal when placed within a 30-foot buffer along nonresidential streets, but the existing enforcement process hasn’t worked, Oast told Council. Violators were given 30 days to take down their signs and could escape paying fines by simply removing them and putting them back up the next day. Additionally, many of the companies that use such signage are fly-by-night, and others hide behind anonymous 800 numbers. And because the signs are so cheap to produce, the city has been overwhelmed with them.

“Our 1990 ordinance simply has not kept up with current sign technology,” noted Oast.

So, taking a page from a recently enacted Buncombe County law that allows such signs to be removed without prior warning, Oast said he hopes to make it ineffective to plant them to begin with.

For several years, various community groups have appealed to the city for a way to fight the blight. The signs, often cardboard or plastic mounted on wire stands, are not just an eyesore but a traffic hazard, activists say, blocking views around corners and distracting drivers. And on windy days — not uncommon lately — uprooted signs can even become airborne hazards, added Oast. The revised ordinance also prohibits signs affixed to trees, poles, fences or other roadside features.

“These people have no regard whatsoever for the scenic view in our community,” Ashton Walton of Sign Stoppers had told Council members the last time they considered the matter, at the Feb. 28 formal session.

At that meeting, June Patterson of Stop the Signs agreed, saying, “It contributes to our litter; it contributes to our traffic problems.”

Oast had brought an early draft of the sign ordinance to Council back in January and returned with a revised version Feb. 28. But both times, he was asked to do further tweaking to address Council members’ concerns. This time around, Oast took pains to emphasize that the ordinance is based on location, not content. All signs, whether election posters or yard-sale promotions, are illegal if placed within the 30-foot right of way.

Some on Council have spoken up in support of specific types of signs. In a previous meeting, Council member Jan Davis had said he was reluctant to outlaw yard-sale or missing-pet signs, and Council member Robin Cape, a musician by trade, has repeatedly argued on behalf of posters advertising musical performances around town. Those signs, however, are already illegal unless they’re posted on kiosks or bulletin boards, Oast emphasized. Cape has also appealed to staff to find more places where such fliers can be placed.

But showing a preference for certain kinds of content can lead to legal problems, cautioned Oast, explaining the need for a blanket prohibition. The sole exemption is for governmental signs, such as those advertising a zoning hearing.

The city attorney also emphasized that the new ordinance does not give activists carte blanche to start removing signs they find by the side of the road. “We’re trying not to encourage self-help,” he said, because it could result in confrontations, trespassing or even theft.

The new ordinance passed unanimously.

How high’s the water, mama?

When it rains, it pours. From a trickle of water running across an oil-stained parking lot to a surging flood washing out the River District, Asheville is calling in some help to figure out how to deal with its stormwater issues.

Over Council member Carl Mumpower‘s objections, City Council voted to hire Woolpert Inc. to assist city staff in revamping Asheville’s ordinances regarding stormwater, floodplain and erosion-control.

“These topics are so closely related, we decided to deal with them all at the same time,” Stormwater Services Manager Chad Pierce told Xpress.

The company, which has offices all over the Southeast, can shore up gaps in city staff’s expertise, City Engineer Cathy Ball told Council members. She’d initially brought the proposal to Council Feb. 28 but was sent back to the drawing board to trim the estimated $90,000 tab. By reducing the amount of time Woolpert will dedicate to the project and reassigning some tasks to city staff, Ball said the cost could be whittled down to about $74,000.

The money will come from a recently implemented fee levied on owners of developed property to pay for the treatment of stormwater runoff, Pierce explained.

Federal regulations require the city to upgrade its stormwater treatment plan by July 1. Damage from the 2004 floods and changes in state laws concerning sediment control on construction sites goosed the city into looking at an entire catalog of water-related issues, according to the staff report.

And while city staffers can handle much of the work, they need help in certain areas, Ball told Council, saying, “The reason we need these folks is 100 percent their technical expertise.”

But Mumpower balked at bringing in pinch hitters. “The lion’s share of what we need to do is really already clear,” he argued. “Our path is already before us.”

Federal models and examples from other municipalities could make up for any deficit in staff’s expertise, he maintained. Mumpower also seemed displeased about the fact that much of the consultant’s duties would involve collecting information from local stakeholders.

Pierce explained later that the city wants someone on hand who can handle the technical questions that come up in such meetings. “We want to be able to answer questions on the spot,” he told Xpress.

And Ball, challenging Mumpower’s argument, stuck to her guns at the Council meeting, emphasizing the special problems created by Asheville’s topography. City Manager Gary Jackson backed up Ball’s analysis, saying, “We’re not looking at an off-the-shelf answer for our issues in Asheville.”

In the end, Mumpower proved to be the lone holdout, and the contract was approved 6-1.

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