At least one billboard sign may go up along the U.S. 27/84 bypass in Bainbridge, however, City of Bainbridge officials are planning to prevent any others from going up.
A Thomasville sign company had applied to place a billboard sign on a property off West College Street, adjacent to the Bainbridge bypass. The application was administratively denied, based on the text of the city’s current sign ordinance, which prohibits billboards next to the bypass (see below).
Bainbridge City Manager Chris Hobby said the restriction on bypass signs was part of an local ordinance adopted in 1992.
“My understanding is that in exchange for the Georgia Department of Transportation putting up some traveler information signs, the ones that advertise where to eat, etc., the City Council agreed to prohibit signs along the bypass,” Hobby said.
The U.S. 27/84 bypass, was completed in the late 1950s as a project championed by former Governor Marvin Griffin. Over the years, daily traffic has significantly increased and according to Hobby, state transportation officials generally view billboards as potentially distracting to motorists on the bypass. It’s commonly known by locals that the bypass has some tricky sections, including a wide curve leading up to the Shotwell Street exit, and the narrow twin bridges over the Flint River, spots that have been the site of numerous accidents.
Hobby said the problem is that courts have ruled that governments cannot restrict the First Amendment right of freedom of expression related to the content of signs; the Georgia Outdoor Advertising Code (Lexis Nexis) does prohibit signs advertising any illegal products or services, or any material considered obscene or of a sexual nature. Hobby said he wasn’t aware of any constitutional challenges to the state law concerning signs along interstates or limited access roads.
In our review of the portion of the current Bainbridge sign ordinance dealing with bypass signs, there are a few key provisions:
- This article shall apply to all outdoor advertising signs abutting or visible from the Limited Access portions of State Route 1 and State Route 38 in the city.
- Signs must be constructed of durable materials, maintained in good condition, and not permitted to become dilapidated.
- Any sign which advertises an activity, business, product or service which has ceased operation or production shall be removed within six months of the discontinuance of said activity, business, product or service.
- All outdoor advertising signs which are not within 100 feet of a regularly used part of the activity being advertised and located on the same property and for sale or for lease signs which are not on the property being advertised are specifically prohibited. (Note: The language in the preceding paragraph is the one which was deemed as potentially unconstitutional by the City of Bainbridge’s consulting attorney on zoning matters, as it places restrictions on the content of a sign)
In other words, under the current ordinance, you couldn’t put up a sign along the bypass and advertise a business on the main commercial strip of Shotwell Street in Bainbridge.
At least one bypass sign will be allowed due to timing of application
After the Thomasville sign company’s challenge was deemed as legitimate by the attorney who consults the City of Bainbridge on zoning matters, the City of Bainbridge placed a moratorium on bypass signs until the sign ordinance could be revised. According to Hobby, the Thomasville sign company’s application must be considered on the existing ordinance’s language, minus the unconstitutional section, and thus will be approved.
The Thomasville sign company, Rose City Outdoor, specializes in digital billboards displaying multiple advertisements in rotation on a large screen. (You can see examples of the company’s work in Cairo and Thomasville). According to Hobby, Rose City Outdoors wants to place a two-sided, multi-message sign on property along West College Street. (If you drive west on Shotwell Street, just past the RV park, the property is on the left and currently has some metal buildings on it.)
“You will be able to see the sign from the bridge that goes over Shotwell Street,” Hobby said.
There are some provisions in state law regarding multiple message signs, for example, each advertisement will have to be displayed for a minimum of 10 seconds and the sign can’t be so bright that it causes glare or impairs the vision of drivers.
Per state law, Rose City Outdoors will still have to obtain sign permits from the State of Georgia and the City of Bainbridge; whenever the sign goes up, both state DOT officials and the city’s building inspector will get to inspect it for compliance. For example, does the electrical wiring to the sign meet city building code? In the view of the state DOT officials, does it impair drivers’ vision in any way or otherwise distract them?
“Drivers’ safety remains paramount [under the new ordinance],” Hobby said.
Proposed changes to city ordinance
Assistant City Manager Roy Oliver has been working on a proposed revision to the city’s bypass sign ordinance in a way that keeps the spirit of the 1992 ordinance’s limitation on bypass signs, without running afoul of the Constitution by addressing a sign’s content. Instead, the proposed ordinance (24kb PDF) takes the tack of carefully limiting where bypass signs can be located, how large they can be, and how far apart from each other they must be placed.
The most significant limitation proposed is “Signs must not be within 500 feet of any residential or institutional zoning district.” Hobby acknowledged our observation that a large portion of the bypass does pass within 500 feet of homes (ex. homes on Libby Street, College Street, Twin Lakes Drive, Lake Douglas Road, and others)
Furthermore, under the proposed ordinance, signs can only be placed on property within the city limits that is zoned for light industrial or heavy industrial use. (Most of the property zoned for industrial use in Bainbridge is located along Dothan Road / U.S. 84 West.)
Under the proposed language, bypass signs cannot exceed 240 square feet in area on each side and the sign structure can’t be taller than 60 feet.
They also wouldn’t be allowed to overhang any public right-of-way or any other person’s property. We asked Hobby about two areas in particular. 1) The grassy area, about an acre or so, across the street from the Earle May Boat Basin, that currently has a river rock on it. 2) The portions of Hatcher Street (the road that connects Cheney Griffin Park to the Boat Basin) that are visible from the bypass.
Could signs go up on either of those locations under the proposed ordinance? No, Hobby said. Partly because of the overhang restriction and also because both of those places are publicly-owned land (leased to the City of Bainbridge by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), the city manager said.
“People don’t want to go out in their yards and see a large billboard sign looming over them,” Hobby said.
State law says billboard signs on bypasses must be placed at least 500 feet apart from each other. The proposed city ordinance states that billboards will have to be 1,500 feet apart from each other and multiple message billboards like the one Rose City Outdoor wants to build will have to be placed at least 5,000 feet (or almost a mile) apart. Considering the limited access portion of U.S. 27/84 Business through Bainbridge is just about 5 miles long, those requirements will further limit where billboard signs can go up.
The Bainbridge City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed bypass sign ordinance at their meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Bainbridge City Hall, 101 S. Broad Street.