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The Daily Tar Heel

Chapel Hill sees changes to town signage

A set of ordinances that helps Chapel Hill keep its small town charm is getting major updates. 

As it stands, downtown Chapel Hill businesses face a complicated set of procedures for setting up signage. The regulations are mostly text-based and can be difficult to understand for those unfamiliar with the procedural language. Some business owners and sign companies said they find themselves unaware of what they can and can’t do when designing an exterior space. 

“(The process) was fairly complicated, to the point where the sign company didn’t really know what the rules were,” said Bret Oliverio, owner of Sup Dogs on Franklin Street. “The sign ordinances are super conservative, and it holds back businesses from their creative potential when it comes to designing a storefront.” 

The Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO) sets restrictions on the size, color, lighting and context of signs put up by Chapel Hill businesses. 

The current LUMO standards were adopted in 2003, but now the town is updating them to fit the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan.

“ … There’s lots of confusion on what is allowable and what is not, how to make measurements, that sort of thing,” said Bobby Funk, assistant director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership. “The new ordinance would allow for some instances of larger signage and more signage, and certainly much more flexible signage.” 

In an effort to make the ordinance more comprehensible and palatable to business owners, the town drafted a proposed update in June 2015. 

“The interest in revising the regulations was to make them easier to understand and to respond to some interest from businesses in the community looking for more flexibility with signage,” said Gene Poveromo, Chapel Hill development manager. 

The updated draft is largely image-based and streamlines the more complicated aspects of the ordinance. 

One of the largest potential changes to the ordinance pertains to unified sign plans — which the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership advocated for — but hasn’t been added to the preliminary draft. 

Currently, businesses on the same zoning parcel are required to draft a unified sign plan that reflects cohesion on the part of those businesses. This limits the ability of smaller businesses to creatively design their space and attract potential customers. 

“We’re advocating for a limitation on requirements for this unified sign plan, essentially saying that if you are a development of a certain scale, you would not be required to have that unified sign plan,” Funk said. 

The council is considering three options in response to the Partnership’s concerns: eliminating the standards from the Town Center zoning district, exempting smaller buildings and exempting buildings that have a limited number of tenants. 

The Planning Commission is currently examining the most recent draft. Before the Town Council can vote on the updates, the commission has to complete their recommendations, which may include further edits. There will be a council business meeting on all topics of the LUMO on Nov. 23. 

Oliverio is confident that the council will pass the signage updates. 

“Everyone wants to see downtown Chapel Hill be really cool and hip and sort of keep that reputation going," Olivero said. "It will be a win-win for everyone. If the signage ordinance does change, we’re gonna update our sign, 100 percent."

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