ASHLAND The Ashland City Commission broke ranks from its typical lock-step voting Thursday over a billboard for a fast food joint.
The vote wound up in a 2-2 tie, after Commissioner Bernice Henry abstained. Due to the tie, the sign remains in violation, however, the commission voted to delay enforcing the code in order to further look at it.
The meeting got lively as commissioners hashed out whether or not the Steak ’n Shake billboard erected a few weeks ago in the 1600 block of Greenup Avenue should stay or go.
Within view of the city government building, the billboard on the red painted wall of the RE/MAX Realty building was ruled a zoning violation due to a 1986 ordinance that forbids billboards in certain parts of downtown unless the sign is advertising for a business inside the building.
Billboards prior to 1986 were grandfathered.
Katherine Utsinger, representing the Department of Economic and Community Development, noted the sign was also put up without proper permits and applications.
Business owner Douglas Knipp, who owns Steak ’n Shake and KFC franchises across four-states, said he bought the RE/MAX business July 1. He said the offices for his Steak ’n Shake franchise are inside the building.
Knipp also said he thought the sign installation outfit he hired had gotten the permits, but said in light of the oversight, he would gladly pay any fines.
Right off the rip, Mayor Steve Gilmore said if it was up to him, he'd purge the entire downtown of billboards.
“Going down 13th Street, we can't do nothing about it because it's a state road, but when you're driving down it it looks like a circus out there,” Gilmore said. “I don't want our historic downtown to look like that.”
Knipp contended since the corporate office to his franchise is there, it shouldn't run afoul of the ordinance. City Attorney Jim Moore called that “a stretch.”
“It's the office, not the actual restaurant. The billboard is advertising the restaurant,” Moore said.
Matt Perkins, a current commissioner and the next mayor, used the discussion to throw down a challenge for the commission: re-evaluating 30-year-old zoning ordinances. Perkins, a business owner himself, said the city should took a look at ordinances that might not be “business-friendly.”
“We need to be using common sense,” Perkins said. “What may have applied in the 1980s doesn't apply now. This billboard isn't offensive.”
Perkins also noted a mural painted across from the Delta Hotel did not go through the proper channels either and could also be in violation. While Perkins said he didn't want the mural to go anywhere, if the Steak ’n Shake sign should go, so should it.
Gilmore said the two are completely different: the billboard is for commercial purposes and the mural “goes toward what we're trying to promote in downtown.”
Perkins retorted, “He (Knipp) is promoting commerce, which is also what we're doing downtown.”
Utsinger brought up that if the billboard was allowed to stand downtown, it could open the precedent of allowing Knipp to rent the space out to a billboard that is offensive.
Commissioner Marty Gute said code enforcement is one of the toughest jobs to work in the city, alongside police.
“When the fire department arrives, everybody is happy, but on the other hand when code enforcement or the police arrive, someone might not be happy,” Gute said. “But sometimes, there's a gray area and where there's a gray area, I believe there needs to be grace.”
Moore said extending grace, since the sign isn't offensive, could lead to issues down the road.
“If we start making decisions based on content, we're going to run up into First-Amendment issues,” Moore said.
Commissioner Amanda Clark said she is straddling the fence on the issue — on the one hand, the billboard isn't offensive and she would like to encourage more businesses in downtown, but on the other hand, she didn't want to approve something that runs afoul of the ordinance.
“I know I'm on the fence here, but I'm fine with the sign as long as it fits the ordinance in place,” she said. “I agree with Commissioner Perkins that these zoning ordinances need to be looked at.”
Henry said if an ordinance is in place, it needs to be followed.
“If you already have an ordinance in place, there are steps there that you need to abide by,” Henry said. “We need to be consistent and follow the letter of the law. If you don't, people will say, 'you showed favoritism.' That's not what I want do here.”
The commission then voted on whether the appeal should be granted or denied for the sign to remain. Gilmore and Clark voted against the appeal, while Gute and Perkins voted in favor. Henry abstained on the basis that without the ordinance in question in front of her, she did not have enough information to make an educated decision.
That split meant the appeal remained disapproved, which typically means the sign would have to come down. However, after the commission voted unanimously to grant a reprieve against enforcement, the sign will stay up.
The commission will now task the planning and zoning commission to take a look at the ordinance.
Other items on Thursday's agenda included:
- • Unanimously passed a first reading of an adjustment to the 2020 property tax rate, providing a 1% decrease in property tax from the 2019 fiscal year. According to the agenda, the tax rate will be dropped from $0.2714 per $100 in assessed property value in 2019 to $0.2671 per $100 in property value for the present year due. The commission is expected to vote on a second reading of this bill in a special meeting this morning.
- Unanimously approved via a consent agenda three appointments for fire engineer positions ($69,479 per year salary with $49,798 in benefits) and one appointment for fire captain ($72,766 per year salary with $51,147 in benefits). City Manager Mike Graese said the appoints were the result of a retirement in the Battalion Chief position. An appointment for that was nixed from the Thursday agenda to be considered Friday morning due to an error in the numbers cited.
- Approved via consent agenda $8,049.94 to be used towards providing 12 officers, 15 streets department employees and six parks employees to be used for the Winter Wonderland Lights event beginning Nov. 16.
- Approved a First Friday classic car cruise-in for Oct. 2.