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Board of Adjustment debates how far is too far to read a sign

Thursday, October 17, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

The Hill Country Roadway Ordinance mandates that any sign along Highway 360 be less than 12 feet high, smaller than 64 square feet and conceal exterior lighting.

However, Ben Robinson, who was representing the applicant for the Nalle Woods apartments at 4700 North Capital of Texas Highway, explained to the Board of Adjustment at its Oct. 14 meeting that due to the topography surrounding the apartments and the impending Texas Department of Transportation construction, the on-site sign needed to be 17 feet high and 165 square feet in surface area.

“We reduced the sign quite a bit,” he added.

When Robinson came to the board last month, his request was postponed for a redesign. His new design incorporates natural materials like limestone and reduces the size of the individually backlit letters to be more in line with code requirements.

Board Member Michael Von Ohlen acknowledged that he is extremely unlikely to approve a sign variance for a scenic roadway in Austin. By making concessions on size and lighting for one sign, he said, “We’re slowly allowing the camel to stick his nose under the tent.” He explained that approving variances for roadway signage will add up over time and will eventually ruin the countryside driving experience on these protected highways.

However, Board Member Jessica Cohen said, “I have a bit of a different perspective as a former EMT.” A sign that clearly displays an address, she said, is essential to enable first responders to locate the property. In regard to this particular sign, which emphasizes the name of the complex rather than the address, she expressed some hesitation. The numerals of the address will be posted in a smaller font beneath the name of the apartment complex and are not backlit.

There is an existing sign, but due to TxDOT adding an additional access lane, the marker will be moved back up the bluff that hides the property from view and will be raised 10 feet to tower 570 feet above Highway 360. These conditions, according to Robinson, present a hardship for drivers looking for confirmation that they have arrived.

“I’m more than willing to revisit their signage needs after TxDOT is finished,” said Von Ohlen, whose decades of experience as a contractor led him to inform Robinson that any sign that is installed now will be temporary due to damage incurred from construction. In the meantime, he said, old-fashioned directions will suffice for anyone looking for the property. “You cannot miss this place,” he said.

While board members conceded that there was a hardship associated with this case, the fact that Highway 360 is a scenic roadway continued to give them pause. Adding another sign along the highway also raised concerns from neighbors.

Lyra Bemis with the Bunny Run Neighborhood Association, which is adjacent to the site, told the board, “We’re here not to object to this sign specifically.” She emphasized, “We are here to protect the scenic corridor.” She suggested flipping the layout of the sign so that the numbers were more prominent and the name of the complex was secondary.

Board Member Yasmine Smith agreed that flipping the layout of the sign would be a potential solution and one that may not even require the applicant to pursue a variance.

With questions and concerns coming from both the public and the board, those on the dais took a vote to postpone the case to further refine the design. The motion failed.

“I don’t think that a sign that is parallel to 360 helps anyone at all,” Board Member Darryl Pruett said. “You’re going to be right on top of the driveway before you know where those apartments even are.”

Following the vote to postpone the case, board members voted to deny the request for a variance. Although board members Melissa Hawthorne, William Hodge, Veronica Rivera, Yasmine Smith, and Kelly Blume voted against the motion, it passed. Board Member Brooke Bailey was absent.

“There’s a reason signs have been held to a higher standard,” said Chair Don Leighton-Burwell.

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