Sign Language

When the United States Supreme Court rules on an issue everyone must comply. For many Tennessee communities, that means less restriction on signs.

Farragut has long been a hotbed of contention between local businesses and city officials when it comes to signage. Signs are essential to businesses; they are often the only way you know they exist. The town of Farragut wants to make sure that signage is consistent from business to business and maintains their vison of how the town should look. But some business owners think the town goes too far in the restrictions they place on business signage.

For those of us who aren’t planning engineers, sign ordinances tell businesses and other entities what kinds of signage they can have, but they’re actually more than that. They are the statutes by which a city attempts to reduce visual clutter and avoid business “sign wars.” They’re also a huge part of a community’s identity; done well, they can enhance appearances, perceptions and marketability of a location. Some argue they even protect property values. The business owner’s perspective can be quite different and overly restrictive ordinances can adversely affect profitability. This is especially concerning when local brick and mortar shops are battling to compete with internet behemoths like Amazon.

My role is to be the advocate of the business community during discussions with our municipalities, and the signage issue has been an ongoing debate in Farragut for decades. The Farragut/West Knox Chamber was an instrumental voice in Farragut’s last major revision to their sign ordinances in 1998. This helped businesses achieve greater visibility, largely due to the revisions of signs for multi-tenant spaces. Previously, shopping center signs only displayed the name of the plaza on the signs nearest the road or entrance. The 1998 revisions saw that the plaza signs included additional space for the individual businesses within; a needed adjustment since the storefronts were often distanced by the road and large tracts of parking.

Farragut is overhauling its ordinance once again, due in large part to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires all municipal sign ordinances to comply and achieve total content-neutrality in their language.

What does that mean? The ruling comes from a case called Reed vs. The Town of Gilbert. In the case, The Town of Gilbert, Arizona, passed a sign ordinance with stricter provisions for certain signs based on the visible content, meaning that even if the sign was physically the same type of sign, it was held to a different standard depending on what was on the sign.

This standard was applied when the Good News Community Church in Gilbert was cited several times for failing to remove temporary signs advertising their services. Similar signs of the same type and size were exempt from the time limits based on message, and so the church sued the Town of Gilbert, stating that the ordinances were unconstitutional and a violation of their First Amendment rights.

The case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2015 and decided in June 2015, and the courts agreed with the church that Gilbert’s ordinances were indeed unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment, with Justice Clarence Thomas stating the town’s sign ordinance was “content-based on its face” in light of the fact that the “restrictions in the Sign Code that apply to any given sign [depend] entirely on the communicative content of the sign.”

What is the ultimate implication of this landmark ruling? The unanimous decision by the court means that stricter limitations cannot be placed on signs based on their content, and that all ordinance language must be content neutral—based solely on the physical aspects of signs, which can include the quantity, overall size, height, placement, lighting, etc.

So what is a town to do when faced with a total overhaul of their sign ordinances? Mayor Ron Williams sees opportunities to improve the current ordinances, at least by making them less daunting. “I think you need to streamline it.”  He recognizes the wordiness of the existing document, stating it’s a result of trying to keep to the aesthetic that Farragut is known for. “You’re putting so much in there so you’re not discriminating, but trying to keep a tasteful air throughout your town.” He would also like to see the use of taller more narrow signs placed on vertical legs in places where traffic obstruction is a big concern. Following that, implementing signs with rotating tenant panels that give every business a shot at being displayed.

Business owners would like to see them utilize it as an opportunity. It’s no secret that it’s tough to start a small business, especially where retail is concerned. Strict rules about signage can make it even tougher. So far, it appears as though the Town of Farragut is doing just that. There certainly needs to be better balance between the desire of the leaders for a beautiful town and the requirements of business to be successful.

There is no doubt that business is important to the town as it is the majority of the revenue stream. Local sales tax, comprises 56%, state sales tax accounts for another 17%, and 11% from the wholesale drink tax. So, in total 84% of the revenue of the town is generated from business activity. With that in mind, it would seem that the town leaders would want to relax some of the rules to attract even more businesses to locate within the town. But Farragut leadership remains steadfast to the town’s founding principles and there is something to be said for sticking to your values, however this leaves somewhat of a sour taste in the mouths of many business owners.

The initial set of ordinances were adopted in the Fall of 1980; they were 60 pages long and considered a critical part of the Town’s identity. The current set is just under 14,000 words and covers pretty much everything imaginable. The major factor in Farragut’s 1980 incorporation was that residents did not want the beautiful bedroom community they lived in to look the way certain parts of commercial Knoxville did in the late 70’s. And, in defense of the town, they were pretty clear to anyone who wanted to locate a business within its boundaries about what the rules would mean. If you don’t want to listen to the airplanes then don’t build a house near the airport and then later complain that you have “special needs.” Not all business owners disagree with the town’s rules. Mary King, co-owner of MD Weight Loss & Wellness Center, which is located on a busy Farragut corner on Campbell Station Road, recognizes the visible end-result of Farragut’s standards. “I know we don’t want to trash up Farragut; it doesn’t look here like it does in other places!” says King. She didn’t experience problems with obtaining her signage, but admits she would have liked to place a small “Coming Soon” sign in front of her building. “For local businesses like us, we’d like to have created a little anticipation; if there could have been some way to make that a bit easier, that would have been great.”

The 1998 updates addressed some rudimentary legal items, but they also cleaned up language from a lot of amendments made since the initial adoption. The big change was the one the Farragut/West Knox Chamber of Commerce helped to effect—those provisions for multiple tenant panels for ground mounted signs for shopping centers.

But the current ordinances are still really similar to the first ones, and littered with content based language. This comes straight from the current ordinance; from a section for “Signs permitted in all zoning districts.” Currently, it reads that some signs are “specifically permitted.” That may lead others to think any others “shall be prohibited,” the list stipulates for “Advisory signs, such as ‘No Parking,’ ‘Exit,’ ‘Entrance,’ ‘Handicapped Parking.” That’s a big red flag for content neutrality.

Farragut isn’t alone in this, though. Other cities in Tennessee are at various stages of compliance themselves, depending on where they started from; this isn’t like changing the font of a document in one fell swoop. Maryville has updated all of their sign ordinances to be compliant, but Brentwood, TN has a mixture of parts that are compliant and parts that aren’t.

It would have been extremely easy for the Town of Farragut to just task their Community Development office–headed by Mark Shipley–with the task of tackling the unwieldy ordinances, piece by piece, until they met the standard of the Supreme Court’s decision. Even more interesting is the fact that the Reed decision is actually specifically directed just toward non-commercial signage (remember, the entity who pressed suit was a church, not a for-profit business).

Instead, they invited multiple representatives of the business and residential communities to the table to revise it together. This was a hopeful sign that the rules might be adjusted to a more business friendly tone.

None of these individuals, including me, are truly experts on signage, codes or ordinances of any kind. Shipley stated at the opening forum in April 2019 that this was exactly what they were looking for: feedback that questioned language that was confusing or contradictory to lay people such as ourselves. The committee currently consists of Shipley and his team; Jennifer Roche, Knoxville Area Association of Realtors, John Hoffman Farragut Visual Resources Review Board member, Betty Dick, town founder and Farragut MPC representative, Farragut Business Alliance/Shop Farragut representative Steve Krempasky; Town Administrator David Smoak and myself.

Shipley and the Town see this overhaul as an opportunity—though it comes with challenges specific to ordinance writers—to not only conform to the ruling but to hopefully make Farragut a friendlier business community. The meetings are open to the public and I heartily recommend attending and making your voice heard. Shipley publicly spoke about the chance to address issues that have been brought up to Town staff such as WHERE signs can or should be placed, how big can they be, how many can a business have and more. Overall, he has said, this is an opportunity that will provide for more signage, something long asked for by businesses in Farragut. Plus, there are opportunities to make the final document more visually appealing and easier to read, so that those applying for a sign permit know exactly what their options are before they proceed without having to hire legal counsel to interpret the law.

Shipley and his team have warned the committee that these are some of the swamps we’ll have to try to wade through. There are certainly ample challenges but, more importantly, if the business community shows up in force to voice their requests, the town is much more likely to amend the ordinance in a more balanced fashion. That should always be the intent of trying to write a sign ordinance that keeps to a certain aesthetic, but also helps businesses draw more traffic and is carried out fairly across industries. In the words of the late legendary statesman Senator Fred Thompson “There is nothing politicians fear more than the voice of their constituency.” If you want change, no matter which side of the equation you are on, then attend the meetings and write letters voicing and explaining your opinion.

Murky Waters 

So, where are we now? Thus far, we’ve waded, neck-deep at times, through signage of every kind you can imagine and some that I never even thought about: Environmental award signs, political signs, vending machine signs, signs permitted for Gas Stations, and Trailblazing signs that advertise specific lodging brands or attractions (these are what you see near interstate ramps).  The committee is meeting every month, sometimes more.

One example of a convoluted sign ordinance rewriting issue is in way-finding signs. To stipulate that you can have, say, 25 signs but only if they’re all used for way-finding or giving directions violates content neutrality; you’re telling the business WHAT they can put on the sign in order to have or use it. So, how do you write an ordinance to allow the numerous signs a hospital needs—because hospitals need a LOT of directional signs—but restrict other business and still call it equitable and content-neutral? It’s tricky stuff, for sure.

Of most interest to me, of course, are the signs that affect businesses in single and multi-use tenant spaces. The notion of rotating panel signs is an interesting one. Will it become part of the new ordinances, and moreover, will it satisfy business tenants who want more signage exposure? For now, we can only speculate.

In Closing

It is unclear at this time what the town will do or what the final product will look like, but one thing is certain: they will have to soon come into compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. We, as citizens, business owners, residents, need to give our leaders input. Hopefully, they will listen and  consider compromise to the will of the residents and businesses in the community, but they can only do that if you make your voice heard. See you at the meeting.   

Meet Julie

I’m Julie Blaylock, and I oversee the local Chamber of Commerce.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have the perfect career, or how to even begin finding one? The truth of the matter is, like most people, I didn’t know where to begin. But after eight years at the Chamber of Commerce, there is no question I have the absolute best job I never knew I wanted. Every day I get to see business leaders in action and most days I get to meet new people. I get to learn about how their businesses work, and help them network with other businesses in the community. This helps them grow and increases profits, which allows them to create new jobs. Seeing the community thrive gives me pride in my work. So, what could be better than that?  For me, this is the best job in the world.

The Chamber serves hundreds of regional business members from all over Knox and surrounding counties. Our mission is to strengthen, promote and create business opportunities through relationships and education that encourage member success. I am excited to contribute to Cityview’s new business section and bring you information on the local business community. I’m on the forefront of what is changing in local business and will be sharing it in this series. If you have any ideas, feel free to shoot me an email at julie@farragutchamber.com or give me a call at the chamber at 865-675-7057. 

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