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Sandy Springs resident, officials disagree on sign ordinance
by Everett Catts
October 21, 2013 10:45 AM | 2902 views | 3 3 comments | 68 68 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A Sandy Springs resident says some of the city’s incumbent council members’ campaign signs are violating the city’s sign ordinance, but those candidates and the city attorney said the signs, which earlier this month were too large, now comply with the law.

Michael McDonald, who lives in council District 2, where Ken Dishman faces incumbent Dianne Fries in the Nov. 5 nonpartisan election, said he has brought up the issue with city staff since September and voiced his concerns at last week’s council meeting. He claims both Fries’ and District 4 Councilman Gabriel Sterling’s signs are still illegal.

“I had a blowup [photo] made of the signs at the [Sandy Springs] Gun Club [and Range], which show the Sterling sign and the Fries sign and a sign for my namesake candidate, Graham McDonald, who has the standard sign size,” McDonald said. “It’s dwarfed by comparison. As a [retired] marketing/advertising agency guy, the impact is exponential. It’s not just twice the size but even more.

“What’s being done is a monetary number being put on it, which underscores the fraudulence of this act. Either the signs comply or they don’t. If they don’t, they should be taken down. It’s a legal issue”

According to the ordinance, the city allows three types of signs: standard, expanded and cantilever. It regulates the sizes of signs but does not limit the quantity. McDonald took issue with the sizes of the expanded signs, which cannot exceed 6 square feet in size or 5 feet in height. Some candidates’ expanded ones, McDonald said, are still out of compliance.

In an Oct. 10 letter to the city’s political candidates, City Attorney Wendell Willard wrote, “It has come to our attention that the size of some of the political signs that have been erected on private property in the city of Sandy Springs are not in compliance with the size requirements of the zoning ordinance. This letter is written to provide notice that these signs should be brought into compliance by Monday, Oct. 14 at 5 p.m. if these signs are not brought into compliance, a notice of violation will be issued to the owner of the property where these signs are located.

“Upon filing to run for office, you were provided information regarding the maximum size and allowable location for standard informational signs. Depending on the zoning district in which the property is located, expanded informational signs and cantilever signs can also be used as political signs.”

The following day, Willard wrote a new letter to candidates to clarify what the sign ordinance would allow.

“Can signs that are larger than the size allowed by the zoning ordinance be split into separate signs?” he wrote. “This option is acceptable as long as each sign segment is independently supported and does not exceed the maximum size allowed by the ordinance. That is each segment becomes a separate freestanding sign. … Can a banner permit be issued for a political sign? A banner permit can be issued for a political sign. Barrier permits are limited to a 14-day period and can be issued for up to three 14-day periods per calendar year for each single-family lot or business. While banner permits can be issued for concurrent periods, display of no more than one banner is allowed per lot or business at any given time.”

Fries and Sterling were informed some of their campaign signs on commercial properties along Roswell Road - seven of Fries’ and two of Sterling’s - were above the size limit.

Fries said she met with Willard, City Manager John McDonough and Community Development Director Angela Parker Oct. 11 and asked if cutting those signs in half and placing them side by side would put them back in compliance, at 5.22 square feet. According to Fries, Willard said yes.

“As soon as I got a ruling, I cut them all in half, got more poles and put them up,” Fries said, adding she did so Oct. 12. She said she had more signs on Roswell Road than Sterling because many of the neighborhoods in her district do not allow yard signs due to stricter regulations.

Sterling said he did the same thing with his two illegal signs to reduce them to 5.22 square feet, but added he believes the law cannot dictate the size of political signs because they are protected under the First Amendment.

“When it comes to political signs in this city, it’s free speech,” said Sterling, who was elected to the council in a special election in March 2011. “I used the same size signs three years ago and [got] nary a peep from anybody. … If you can find it written in the code anywhere, [I will take the signs down]. … I think you will have a very hard time limiting the signs. Political speech is the most sacrosanct speech.

“I think we should follow what the [U.S.] Supreme Court is saying on these things, which is to give the largest berth on the political speech available. If the citizens say we’re not in compliance, we’ll look into it. This is all politics. This is something that someone is trying to make hay out of nothing.”

In an intereview last week, Willard said the city is trying to remain neutral on the issue.

“We’re not treating anybody any differently … We’re trying to let the candidates run their campaigns and we’re trying to keep the city personnel out of the races,” he said.

Those interviewed agreed on one issue – the sign ordinance needs to be amended to address the issues brought up during this election.

“The sign ordinance is somewhat ambiguous,” Sterling said.

McDonald added, “There are two issues here. One is the clock running on the election date. If we don’t take it down, afterwards it’s somewhat academic and some candidates might suffer. Going forward, it’s an issue that will need to be addressed.”

City spokeswoman Sharon Kraun said Sandy Springs’ code enforcement department has not issued any citations regarding political candidates’ signs this year.

“We have removed signs that were placed within the right-of-way which is standard practice,” she said.

McDonald said he has not decided yet if he will take legal action against the city to continue his fight over the issue.
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Michael G. McDonald
October 22, 2013
A size clarification is in order. The Sandy Springs law says that signs of any kind, including, political signs, on commercial property cannot exceed 4 square feet in total message area. The absurd notion that two oversized 5 sf signs (over 10sf in toto) can be fabricated is an unlawful fabrication and it must be disallowed by the City.

Imagine the judicious King Solomon, in dealing with the two women who claimed to be the mother of the same infant, actually cutting the baby in two and giving each half of the dead baby to the claimants, saying: "here's a half for each of you" Grotesquely, there would still only be one baby (dead), not two.

Fortunately, for the sake of historical Justice, King Solomon was wiser than that reverse lack of wisdom that is being displayed at City Hall. I venture to sadly say, that this stain on the escutcheon of the City of Sandy Springs, will remain long after the 2013 election is over.
October 22, 2013
My biggest concern is the bullying threat posed by Fries and Sterling. Giant, out of compliance bilboards by a gun facility? You can only imagine what they are like on the City Council
Michael G. McDonald
October 21, 2013
Who says: “You can’t beat City Hall”?

The City of Sandy Springs Chief Counsel, Wendell Willard, Esq., for one, says so. The Mayor, members of the City Council and the head administration of the City, also say so.

They are all saying, either out-rightly or tacitly, that the City’s laws concerning political campaign signage can be broken. In this case, by two incumbents, seeking re-election to the City Council on Tuesday, November 5.

At issue, is the size of seven (7) out-lawed, oversized, political campaign signs for incumbent District 2 candidate Dianne Fries; and one illegal, oversized sign of incumbent candidate, Gabriel Sterling from District 4. All of these signs are on commercial property on heavily trafficked Roswell Road.

The current Sandy Springs law regarding the permitted size is that all signs must be no larger than 4 square feet in message area. All of these oversized signs greatly exceed this size limit. As a concerned citizen of Sandy Springs who has lived at my current residence for over 45 years, I verbally presented my written concerns during a public forum at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, October 15, after having registered my objections to the City’s chief lawyer, Wendell Willard, Esq. in person, beforehand. Incredibly, he insisted that these out-sized signs were within code when they were clearly and demonstrably, not in compliance. Ironically, on October 10, he decreed these signs to be out of compliance in a letter to all candidates and ordered them removed. The very next day, October 11, he issued another letter to the candidates saying they were OK. A 180-degree, about-face in 24 hours!

The harm that these signs has done to the opponents of these incumbent, scofflaw candidates is incalculable, but nevertheless, very significant. These, illegal signs are worth thousands of dollars in voter exposure and impact, sited as they are on busy Roswell Road.

This is unfair and it is un-American. The right to vote in a fair election is our most precious privilege. This right must be protected by all of our elected officials and public servants and citizens, at all cost.

While the damage has been done to all of us citizens of Sandy Springs, particularly to all law- abiding candidates, you have the ultimate say when you cast your ballot on November 5. Send a clear, strong message by removing the lawbreakers from public office. Let one and all know that no one is above the law in our town of Sandy Springs.

In this case, you can beat City Hall.

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