The Chapel Hill Town Council on Aug. 26 approved changes to the town's signage ordinance that greatly relax restrictions on personal signs erected in town.
The alterations removed all restrictions on the size of signs and extended the period of sign campaigns for political elections from 30 days before the election to 45.
Concerns about the ordinance arose last September following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon when Top of the Hill owner Scott Maitland hung a large sign reading "God Bless America, Woe to Our Enemies" from the balcony of his restaurant. Someone complained that the sign violated the town's sign size limits. Following much debate, Maitland removed the sign.
The ordinance is enforced through complaint only, which means the only signs removed are the ones that upset people, Maitland said.
He said the town's decision was nothing but amusing.
"It's amusing they addressed something totally irrelevant," he said. "The point was the message. I wanted the sign to be a rallying point for the community, and the attention brought to it completely clouded that."
Council member Dorothy Verkerk said Maitland's sign was never the cause for the ordinance change; his case merely brought the issue into play.
"The Top of the Hill case was never as connected as much as it was made out in the papers," she said. "It just made us look at our sign ordinance."
Under the new ordinance, there are no longer any limits to how large a sign can be. Given the First Amendment, which has been used as a weapon for proponents of signage reform since the controversy began, these signs could sport any message the owner liked, whether it was interpreted as distasteful or not.
Council member Jim Ward said the council weighed the possibility of rampant signage before approving the measure.
"For me, it was a desire to make sure people have the opportunity to express themselves," he said. "As far as visual pollution and trash go, I felt it was important enough to liberate the sign ordinance."
But Ward cautioned that the council would be watching for abuses of the newly granted freedom, with help from concerned residents.
"We will be looking around, and there are people in town who will let us know if something is getting out of hand," he said. "It is the council's prerogative to change the ordinance."
Verkerk said she thinks Chapel Hill might be able to avoid the potential problems associated with fewer signage restrictions. "In Chapel Hill, we like to think we've got a fair amount of common sense," she said.
Maitland, however, is not so sure.
"I could see how one day we could end up with someone doing something that we as a community would just say is ridiculous," he said.
"I expect this decision will come back to haunt the Town Council."
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