Billboard company challenges Houston sign laws

Houston County cities are reviewing their sign regulations with a fine-tooth comb after a Conyers-based billboard company accused Warner Robins and Centerville of having unconstitutional laws on their books.

Southern Advertising sent letters to both cities alleging their sign laws violate the First Amendment. Last month, both cities temporarily halted issuing sign permits.

May 26, the Centerville City Council passed a 90-day moratorium on granting permits for any sign larger than 200 square feet. The Warner Robins City Council quickly followed suit with its own 90-day moratorium.

Kevin Weinz with Southern Advertising said his company looked at both cities’ regulations after a client wanted to place a billboard in Warner Robins. However, the city rejected the permit because the client wanted to place it outside of a permitted area, Warner Robins City Attorney Jim Elliott said. In Warner Robins, billboards are only allowed in industrial zones near Interstate 75.

“Warner Robins and Centerville’s ordinances were almost identical,” Weinz said.

In a May 18 letter, Southern Advertising informed Centerville officials their sign code violates the First Amendment, even though the city approved the company’s billboard permit.

Southern Advertising claimed Centerville favors commercial over noncommercial speech. Furthermore, the company alleged it’s unconstitutional that the ordinance regulates noncommercial speech as well as political speech. The letter also said the code was written in a way that gave too much discretion to the person issuing the permit. It also stated that the city’s permitting process was unconstitutional.

Centerville City Attorney Rebecca Tydings said she has been revising the city’s sign ordinance to make it “content neutral” during the moratorium period. She noted that cities across the country have been reworking their sign ordinances as outdoor advertisers have reacted to recent court decisions.

“You want to balance people’s ability to advertise with safety and aesthetic issues,” Tydings said.

In a May 22 letter to Warner Robins, Southern Advertising said the city’s code violated the First Amendment because of its many restrictions on speech and its permit requirement. The company also called the city’s ordinance vague and said the ordinance allows licensing officials to decide what sign content is appropriate.

Elliott said it’s common for laws regarding signs to evolve as new court decisions are made. Therefore, he said it’s prudent for the city to conduct its own investigation, and the moratorium allows time to do that.

“Anytime someone challenges a provision of your ordinance, you need to look to see if there is some substance,” Elliott said.

In Houston County’s other city, Perry officials haven’t received notification from the sign company but opted for a 120-day moratorium on issuing sign permits to give officials time to look over their regulations.

“The council felt it was appropriate to be proactive to see if any changes needed to be made to our ordinance,” City Manager Lee Gilmour said.

To contact writer Natasha Smith, call 923-3109, extension 236.