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Billboards: Sign company seeks permits as county votes on ban

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Permit requests for five electronic billboards were filed with Georgetown County last week, days before the Planning Commission gave unanimous approval to a ban on the signs along Highway 17 on Waccamaw Neck.

“They were all incomplete,” Boyd Johnson, the county planning director, said of the permit applications.

Following the commission’s vote, the building department won’t issue any permits for electronic billboards, Johnson said. The ban must be approved by County Council as an amendment to the zoning ordinance.

The commission and the planning staff started looking at digital billboards last fall after one went up at Pawleys Island. To comply with the provisions of the current zoning ordinance, Pobuckra Properties subdivided a larger parcel to create a quarter acre lot for the sign. Billboards are classed as off-site signs and not allowed on property with other uses.

A survey by planning staff found out of 35 billboards on Highway 17, 16 were non-conforming because they are on a lot with another structure. Only eight of the 35 conform to the current ordinance and could be converted to electronic billboards, the survey found.

Bill Renault, a Tradition Club resident, called the digital sign part of the “Myrtle Beach-ization of the Waccamaw Neck.” He told the commission he understands that businesses need to advertise, but he believes digital signs spoil the look of the area and will eventually reduce property values. “You only have to look at Mount Pleasant or Hilton Head. It can be done right,” he said.

Renault was the only speaker at the commission hearing. He said other residents are concerned, “they just don’t have the desire to come down here and talk about it.”

Bob Bates and Lloyd Johnson, the general manager and leasing manager of Lamar Advertising, which filed the sign permits, arrived after the commission had voted. The issue was moved to the top of the agenda because Brian Henry, the chairman, had to leave early. The company has 24 billboards on Waccamaw Neck.

The company representatives left without speaking. Bates did not return a call seeking a comment about the decision.

The ban on digital billboards would only apply on Highway 17 on Waccamaw Neck, an area where the county created an “overlay zone” that regulates the appearance of commercial structures. “We’re not prohibiting billboards in Georgetown County,” Johnson said.

The digital billboard ban cites aesthetic and safety concerns. Johnson told the commission he has read many safety studies on the signs. “They are conflicting,” he said, but there is evidence that the changing messages are a distraction to drivers.

Johnson also noted that the county adopted a ban on electronic signs for businesses just before the digital billboard was installed. It doesn’t make sense to allow them for off-site signs, but not on-site signs, he said.

The commission approved the ban without discussion. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Henry said.

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