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Commission halts momentum of billboard ordinance

Wednesday, April 9, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Planning Commission sidelined its review of proposed changes to the sign ordinance last night, a motion that will put the amendment in limbo until the commission can determine its position and forward the document on to Council.


That puts the Planning Commission in the unique position to determine the timeline for approving an amendment set out by Council edict. Council members sent the proposed revisions through the review process back in November, with the goal of getting the document back in 90 days. That February deadline has come and gone.


The amendment was supposed to get back to Council this week for a scheduled public hearing. The Design Commission held a special-called meeting on Monday night and approved its letter of recommendations. The Urban Transportation Commission approved the small taxicab section of the ordinance amendment on a vote of 4-3 last night.


But when it came time for the Planning Commission to take action, the process stalled. Discussion at the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee on the amendment had been rather tame. Last night, though, the commission had an audience of both Scenic Austin and various neighborhood groups, plus more than 200 emails in their mailboxes.


“I think this is a lot for us to consider tonight,” said Commissioner Mandy Dealey, who made the motion to table the amendment before public testimony began. “I think it would be premature for us to take a vote tonight and send it on to Council.”

Dealey blamed her hesitation on a number of good points she had received in email from various stakeholder groups. She added that the influx of input was relevant and needed to be considered carefully by the subcommittee to make a responsible recommendation. Commissioner Saundra Kirk agreed, echoing Dealey’s comments.


“I don’t think we realized just how much energy was around this issue,” Kirk admitted. “I don’t know what clock we’re wanting to beat by making a motion on it, but I would like to slow down and really look for some viable alternatives that are not going to be so inflammatory. We’re going to have to live with this solution for a long, long time.”


Planner Jessica King pointed out the ordinance was intended to return to Council on Feb. 10. Clearly, as the calendar approaches April 10, it is well past Council’s deadline.


What made Planning Commission’s motion more interesting was the fact that city code specifically requires a hearing and recommendation from Planning Commission before the Council holds a hearing on amending a non-zoning ordinance, according to Assistant City Attorney David Lloyd. Some speculated that it would be easy – in some instances – to bury a proposed code amendment.


The commission agreed to send the amendment back to the Codes and Ordinances subcommittee, which would make a recommendation to the full commission. The subcommittee will meet next Tuesday, and Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan made a point of asking both Scenic Austin and all the neighborhood groups present to send one representative to the discussion. Sullivan also suggested that instead of the two-dozen people who were present last night, that each group send one or two individuals, given that the subcommittee meeting is held in a small second-floor conference room.


New Commissioner Clint Small said he looked forward to a chance to discuss the amendment, noting that he also wanted to delineate the city’s position on advertising on the Capital Metro buses in town. That is not covered by the ordinance and may not be possible.


Areas that are covered in the amendment – which amends chapters on sign regulations and the chapter on ground transportation services – includes:


  • Allowing off-premise signs on limited portions of the scenic roadways; elimination of mobile billboard businesses;
  • Establishing fees for taxicab signage unrelated to the cab’s primary business;
  • Changing the measurement of billboard height so signs can be viewed from elevated roadways;
  • Allowing larger face areas on relocated signs;
  • Requiring energy efficient lighting on off-premise signs;
  • Prohibiting the relocation of non-conforming signs;
  • Establishing a system to notify sign owners of expired sign registrations and establishes a penalty for failing to pay those fees; and
  • Requiring the sign owner, rather than the property owner, to pay the annual registration fee on billboards.


The amendment could be expanded to include additional requirements. The Planning Commission meets against on April 22.

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