THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES
Highway 17: Planners at work on tougher sign rules
By Jason Lesley
Brian Henry, chairman of the Georgetown County Planning Commission, is worried that this “arrogantly shabby” community is losing its identity as the number of electronic message boards along Highway 17 continues to grow and businesses seek bigger signs to attract customers away from their competitors.
“We are beginning to look like our neighbors to the north,” Henry said during a meeting of the commission last week. The Waccamaw Neck Commercial Overlay District was designed to stop the sprawl of Myrtle Beach-style architecture: giant plastic sharks and anything-goes strip malls. While architectural rules have been effective in raising the design quality of buildings, signs along the busy highway have been allowed to evolve. It’s possible for motorists to see a half-dozen electronic message boards as they approach the Waverly Road-Highway 17 intersection, promoting services at two churches, drug store sale items, gasoline prices, realty specials and a deli menu.
“You can look now and say it’s too late,” Henry said. “If we allow the same stuff, it’s just going to continue. We have a responsibility to do something.”
Planners looked at slides of two dozen signs along Highway 17 and offered comments. The sign at the new Gios restaurant was praised as a model for a stand-alone business. The wooden sign with a gable roof and exterior lighting reflects the materials of the restaurant building. “Eloquently shabby,” said Joanne Ochal, zoning administrator. “An architect drew that sign up.”
Many of the highway signs received criticism from commission members, but the pole sign at the new mini-storage facility near Martin Luther King Drive was singled out. “Worst of the worst,” Henry said.
Planners agreed that eliminating electronic message boards and lowering the profile of all signs will become a thorny problem for the county if stricter regulations are adopted. Change, Henry said, will have to come slowly. “I personally don’t feel like the existing signs would have any timeline to conform,” he said. “I’m more interested in 10 to 20 years from now than three years from now.”
Henry has said in the past that Pawleys Island could never look like Hilton Head with its height and material requirements for signs. Mount Pleasant may be more of a model to follow as businesses change and signs are replaced either through age or weather damage. “I have yet to see a sign that was 50 percent destroyed not be replaced,” county planner Boyd Johnson said. Signs are regenerated more often by businesses changing locations. Present rules say a sign falls under design standards if a property is vacant for six months or changes use. “People who own a business,” Johnson said, “try to get under the gun.”
If signs are destroyed, Henry asked, would they be required to conform? That would lead business owners to complain that the sign rules put them at a competitive disadvantage, he said.
That was the argument put forth by Greg Stalvey of Tyson Signs last month as he argued for a brightly illuminated sign for the refurbished Pawleys Plaza. Pointing to the sign at Fresh Market, he asked, “Can we do what our competition did right down the road?” Stalvey had already been told, Johnson said, to model his proposal after the new Pawleys Market at the South Causeway. Both projects are “planned developments” and their sign proposals are subject to county approval. Pawleys Market developers agreed to signs with lighted lettering rather than lighted panels. The Planning Commission viewed the Pawleys Market sign package as a model for the future. Stalvey said his sign’s smaller panels would be unreadable from the highway if they are not illuminated.
Henry asked if sign rules should be different for Murrells Inlet. The communities north of Brookgreen Gardens are different in character from those south of Brookgreen, he said. Businesses on Bypass 17 have different needs from those along “Restaurant Row” on Business 17, members agreed without offering a proposal.
The commission’s discussion turned to electronic reader boards. They are getting brighter and more eye-catching. Cres Com Bank’s sign near HealthPoint is so bright, commission member Lee Shoulette said, “it knocks you over at night.”
A new sign at Owens Liquors in Litchfield features a big TV screen with changing electronic images of the store’s products.
Reader boards are clearly in the commission’s cross hairs. “I think they need to go,” Shoulette said. Commission member Freddie Hill said he could agree if there are no exceptions: gas prices, weekend specials or time and temperature.
Gas prices seemed to win some sympathy, but chief planner Holly Richardson said it would not be possible to regulate what’s displayed on an electronic message board. Mount Pleasant doesn’t allow them, she said.
The county planning staff was instructed to compile the comments and bring a proposal to the commission for more discussion in May.
Commission members concluded their meeting with a brief discussion of requirements for slanted roofs on buildings that are being upgraded or remodeled at a cost of at least 50 percent of their value. Planners considered lowering the threshold to 25 percent. Buildings being replaced would clearly fall under the overlay district’s rules, planners decided, despite a zoning appeal panel’s ruling last year that allowed the new Publix grocery to skirt the overlay district’s roof rule.