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Sandy Springs resident, officials disagree on sign ordinance
by Everett Catts
October 21, 2013 10:45 AM | 2970 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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