Will you be seeing billboards in the traffic heart of Peachtree City?

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Google view of Ga. Highway 54 West heading toward the railroad overpass.
Google view of Ga. Highway 54 West heading toward the railroad overpass.

City’s sign rules, zoning ordinances to be challenged in coming court case —

Peachtree City Attorney Ted Meeker defends city position in billboard permit denial appeal. Photo/Cal Beverly.
Peachtree City Attorney Ted Meeker defends city position in billboard permit denial appeal. Photo/Cal Beverly.

Peachtree City is known for at least two things: miles of cart paths and no billboards — not ever a billboard, not even one.

The cart paths remain, but the billboard desert may change if a Macon-based billboard company wins a coming court case against the Peachtree City Council.

None will change to three — big, 10-foot by 36-foot, LED-bright billboards, two of them within yards of the busiest traffic spot in Peachtree City, towering above the bridge across the CSX railroad tracks that bisect the city’s largest commercial center.

If the city loses, drivers heading east and west on Ga. Highway 54 will be seeing the Super-Bowl-sized screens flashing rotating commercial messages just beyond The Avenue and just before the Walmart-Home Depot shopping area.

The signs will be the first billboards that have ever been erected inside the city with its signature sign ordinance so strict that it once prohibited soft drink vending machines outside businesses and lighted “Open” and “Closed” signs above bank drive-thru lanes.

For the council, that’s the nightmare outcome of what started as two city mistakes, one of them from the early 2000s and the other from last October. But first, here’s what happened Thursday night as the prelude to the first legal challenge to the city’s sign ordinance in many years.

There was little clue in the City Council agenda for Feb. 18 that a coming struggle might jeopardize the foundation of the city’s unique qualities — its zoning ordinance.

In fact, The Citizen story about the upcoming meeting labeled it as a “sign dispute.” That may have been a billboard-sized understatement.

<b>Atlanta attorney Scott Peters challenges the sign permit denial in an appeal to the Peachtree City Council. Photo/Cal Beverly.</b>
Atlanta attorney Scott Peters challenges the sign permit denial in an appeal to the Peachtree City Council. Photo/Cal Beverly.

Principle Outdoor, LLC, a Macon-based advertising company, filed requests last fall for permits to allow billboard signs in three locations — all of them located on CSX railroad right of way. Besides the Hwy. 54 railroad bridge site, the other sign would add its glow next to the MacDuff Parkway bridge crossing the rail tracks and intersecting with Senoia Road in northwest Peachtree City.

Because the signs exceeded the city’s limits on height and width and because they would be “internally illuminated” signs and were prohibited in the sign ordinance, the city said no, as it had to similar requests for billboards in other locations over the years.

They notified the applicant via email within the required 30-day period of the denial. And thus the first known problem arose.

The city ordinance requires a sign request denial be delivered either in person or by certified mail. The company later said it never received the email. The city then sent the required certified letter, but it was after the city ordinance deadline.

That’s when the lawyers got involved.

Attorney Scott Peters, who works in the Atlanta law firm of Schreeder, Wheeler & Flint, LLP, then filed an appeal on behalf of Principle Outdoor, LLC.

And here’s where the city realizes there’s a bigger problem than the email error and the late certified mail denial.

Peters told the council Thursday night during the appeal hearing that:

(1) The railroad property from which will spring the billboards was unzoned — no city zone of any kind showed up on the city zoning map — and thus the sign ordinance based on zoning category had no legal control over the CSX property. “We are not in the zone,” Peters said.

(2) Even if the property was zoned properly, the sign ordinance “flipped the First Amendment on its head,” Peters argued, because it started from the premise that every sign in the city was illegal unless the city first gave its approval. “The entire sign ordinance is unconstitutional,” Peters said, under the legal doctrine of “prior restraint” on an otherwise constitutionally permitted form of speech.

<b>City Manager Jon Rorie addresses City Council Feb. 18. Photo/Cal Beverly.</b>
City Manager Jon Rorie addresses City Council Feb. 18. Photo/Cal Beverly.

The city couldn’t argue about the unzoned rail tracks — but the kicker is that it was not always so. City Manager Jon Rorie said the railroad property showed up as an industrial zone in all city zoning maps that have been re-adopted each year for decades until around 2000, when the CSX property inexplicably dropped off the zoning map, showing no zone at all, unlike all other property in the city. If it’s not on the zoning map, it’s not zoned.

“Nobody caught it,” Rorie said. Until an Atlanta lawyer did.

The approach was to circumvent the city’s carefully planned zoning rules and accompanying sign restrictions. The applicants worked out a deal to rent some CSX right of way to erect three tall billboards at strategic places where the rail line crossed busy thoroughfares. It doesn’t get much busier around here than the 54-74 intersection.

It’s too late for the city to rezone the CSX property and deny the signs, although the city may next month re-adopt the zoning map showing the tracks as having a zone of some kind to prevent a similar situation from arising in the future.

And officials said they are working on contingency zoning rules just in case the whole zoning edifice underpinning the development of Peachtree City is thrown out by some court.

City Attorney Ted Meeker argued that even with the email mistake, previous Georgia court cases have held that the governing body can correct a mistake in zoning, including signage.

The council heard and denied the appeal 5-to-0, but the case doesn’t end there.

The next step for the billboard company is an appeal to Fayette Superior Court, using the same arguments as Peters used Feb. 18.

Whatever the outcome, the losing side likely will take the case to the next level, the Georgia Court of Appeals. And a loss there will likely be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

A win for the billboard company could be lucrative: Selling ad space on the only three billboards in one of the state’s most affluent cities, an exclusivity that likely would cost advertisers big bucks. It might be considered in the billboard world the local version of commercial spots in the Super Bowl.

A loss for the city would put previously forbidden signage in the most visible spot in the city — bright, flashing, visible for a mile in either direction, and unavoidable for thousands of drivers every day who pass over that bridge — and might tempt other sign-makers to try their luck in court.

But as City Attorney Meeker emphasized in his argument: “We all make mistakes.” The city now hopes for judges sympathetic to human — and governmental — mistakes.

13 COMMENTS

  1. First Ammendment case? Please spare us the frivolous. I can already imagine some local lawyer or realtor that always wanted their face in lights!
    Finally, something to to bring us all together!

    Step 1: Get the word out to all of your neighbors.
    Step 2: Show up en mass to the next city council meeting and every one in the future and sign up to be heard. Let all involved (including the courts) know that this is not only not supported by the citizens but is also in fact a traffic hazard.
    Step 3: If you use social media, use it hard! Make sure that any potential advertisers know that not only will being seen on this sign mean a loss in business and community standing but make sure that the sign company feels the pressure, too.

    This is time for local action by people from all political persuasions to stop this travesty!

    • On step 2, Council heard and denied the appeal. Principle Outdoor LLC now has the option to appeal to Fayette Superior Court. The court will then hear arguments of previous Georgia court cases that recognize that a governing body can correct a mistake in zoning, including signage. It’s in the article where the Council stands on this.

      • Thanks for that info. I’m confused about the zoning question. Sec. 66-5 (3) prohibits, “Flashing, blinking, fluctuating, or otherwise animated signs.” 66-5(16) prohibits, “Internally illuminated signs.” No reference to zoning, that is a citywide prohibition. The maximum size and height of signs, Sec. 66-21 sets different size limitations for residential vs. Commercial / Industrial zoned areas in subsection (a) but the height of a sign per subsection (b) is limited to, “five feet in height from finish grade to the top of the sign.” Again, this is citywide, no reference to zoning. Clearly I’m no expert on zoning but what am I missing?

  2. Maybe a petition for “sound barrier” walls to be strategically erected in these locations should be considered? With the amount of chain reaction accidents between 54/74 and McDuff Parkway, all we need is a “bright, flashing, visible for a mile in either direction” Vegas style billboard as another visual distraction in that stretch of roadway…I can’t imagine any local company buying ad space on any one of these proposed mediums and what the backlash would be? Even if Principle Outdoor, LLC prevails in court; if no one buys ad space, they won’t continue paying the overhead (lease, electricity, liability insurance, etc.) for long before pulling the plug to cut their losses. Simple supply and demand…

  3. If they build it we will come…I say everyone surround the sign if it is built and treat it like BLM attacks a government monument…deface…destroy…tear down….I wonder if CNN talking heads would then say no reason protest should be peaceful?

  4. Some suggestions;
    -vote out PTC administrators responsible, it does not take many votes to change out these failures.
    -bury Principle Outdoor with emails pointing out step 3
    -PTC willing to boycott any company using the sign for advertising and mean it; it’s called social media.

    • I’m not casting stones here, Erik, because I don’t know the answers. But, I can readily think of two questions. First, were you on the City Council when the zoning omission occurred? Second, the fact the State was in a “State of Emergency,” due to COVID limitations in active Government participation help mitigate the circumstances where email was used to expedite communications when the City was slower to obtain a decision on the permit application, than otherwise in a pre-COVID environment?

      Pertaining to the latter question, I can say an email “request for a delivery receipt” would satisfy the intent to communicate the permit application disapproval. That should probably be a standard procedure for all emails communicating a government intent.

    • Email has been the dominant mode of communication for more than 15 years now. Most legal matters are handled electronically these days. Basically the only thing you can’t do via email (or the web) at this point (and Georgia is behind other states in this regard) is serve a summons via email.

      But yes, the folks in power need to be tossed.