Freedom of speech concerns prompt sign ordinance changes

Brown County’s sign ordinance has been overhauled, and a public hearing to take comments on the changes has been set for next week.

A recent Supreme Court ruling on an Arizona case has prompted reviews of sign rules in communities nationwide.

Brown County’s new draft ordinance removes rules that differ depending on what kind of sign it is — such as directional, commercial or noncommercial, off- or on-premises, temporary event, political or realty.

Those were distinctions that Area Plan Commission Attorney David Schilling flagged as possibly problematic due to freedom of speech laws, because they could be considered “content-based.”

Last fall, Bedford was hit with a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a man who’s been posting large signs in his yard for years, expressing his opinions on a variety of issues and people.

In the Bedford case and the Arizona case, ordinances were challenged because they regulated sign content.

Basically, “if you have to read the sign to determine whether or not a regulation applies, then you have a content-based regulation, which is what the Supreme Court says you can’t do,” Schilling told plan commission members when they started working on the changes in February.

The changes

The proposed changes apply only to signs in Brown County that are outside the boundaries of Nashville.

The town has its own sign ordinance, and a revision on it is underway, Planning Director Chris Ritzmann said. It also eventually will go before the plan commission, she said.

The draft ordinance contains a new definition for “sign”: “any object, device display or structure, or part thereof, situated outdoors or indoors, that is used to advertise, identify, display, direct or attract attention to an object, idea, opinion, position, proposition or plan of action, person, institution, organization, business, product, service, event or location by any means, including, without limitation, words, letters, figures, design, symbols, fixtures, colors, illumination, projected images or movement.”

It also defines “animated sign,” “electronic sign” and “vehicle sign” separately.

In the new draft, rules for signs are determined by the zoning district they’re in instead of by the type of sign they are.

Land zoned floodplain, forest reserve, residential (R1 or R2) and local retail can have signs totaling up to 32 square feet, with no one sign bigger than 16 square feet. No sign can be taller than 8 feet, the draft says.

Previously, such lots were allowed 20 square feet of signage on three total signs, not including any directional signs. The height restriction was the same.

Land zoned general business, accommodation business and industrial can have signs totaling 144 square feet, with no one sign bigger than 100 square feet. No sign can be taller than 20 feet, the draft says.

Previously, such lots were allowed 100 square feet of signage on three total signs, not including any directional signs. The height restriction was the same.

The distance the sign has to be set back from the road and any boundary lines has changed. It was 30 feet from the road; the new draft says it must be set back a distance equal to the height of the sign.

The ordinance continues to prohibit “animated, electronic, internally lit, edge lighted, neon or other gas-filled, revolving or rotating, strings of lights, beams, beacons or flashing signs, except as expressly allowed.”

However, neon signs that are 2 square feet or smaller can be displayed. Previously, the ordinance referred to them as “open” signs.

ABOVE: Current county sign ordinance; attorney highlighted sections for the APC to consider changing.

ABOVE: Draft of revised county sign ordinance.

Other impacts?

The rewritten draft ordinance says that one of its objectives is “restricting the continued existence of abandoned or nonconforming signs unless in compliance with the terms of this article and to eliminate, over time, all noncomforming signs.” However, Area Plan Commission Attorney Dave Schilling said June 29 that pre-existing signs will be lawful even if the county commissioners adopt the revised ordinance, as long as they existed before the county had a sign ordinance or were lawful under the previous sign ordinance.

One area community is discussing how the Supreme Court ruling might apply to art, as well.

A Franklin artist hired to paint murals in that community this summer has asked the city to reconsider classifying murals the same as signs.

Murals of a certain size can be painted anywhere in the city with no review or permitting process, city officials told the Daily Journal of Johnson County. Anyone wanting to put up more or bigger displays, or paint a larger mural, can go through an appeal process to seek permission.

The artist, Gordon Strain, proposed making a committee that would vet each proposal and deny the murals or art that are clearly signs. That wouldn’t work, city officials said, because the committee would be reviewing content.

Ritzmann said she didn’t think the subject of art ever occurred to Brown County APC members when they were drafting their changes. She planned to talk to Schilling to get his opinion on how Franklin was interpreting the ruling.

“The definition which our commission chose to include is almost identical to one that communities across the country are using in reaction to the (Supreme Court) decision,” she said.

“My personal opinion is that Franklin is taking things to the extreme.”

If you go

WHAT: Public hearing on proposed new county sign rules

WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 27

WHERE: Second floor of the County Office Building, 201 N. Locust Lane

READ IT: The current ordinance and the proposed changes are posted at under this story. A copy of the new ordinance also can be viewed in the Area Plan Commission office in the County Office Building.

Author photo
Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.