Officials unsure about changes to ordinance

The Brown County Commissioners haven’t decided yet whether or not they’re going to accept a new ordinance governing signs. They tabled the issue until they can understand the Area Plan Commission’s rewrite better.

At their July 5 meeting, the county commissioners expressed reservations about the APC removing some restrictions from the county’s old sign ordinance. Commissioner Diana Biddle said they may ask the APC to put those back in, out of concern that people might be able to place billboard-type signs throughout the county.

The sign ordinance that’s been in place for years already allows a sign of up to 100 square feet in business areas.

Most traditional billboards are about 300 square feet, Area Plan Commission attorney David Schilling said.

The new draft holds each property in a general business, agricultural business or industrial zone to 144 total square feet of signage, with no one sign bigger than 100 square feet. It also allows properties in residential zones up to 32 square feet of signage. Of that 32 square feet, no sign can be bigger than 16 square feet.

Still, 32 square feet is equal to a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood, Biddle pointed out.

In the old ordinance, businesses weren’t able to put up “off-premises” signs — signs that weren’t on their own property — without special permission. The rewrite doesn’t have rules restricting off-premises signs, and that’s where the billboard concerns came from.

“We really don’t need billboards in this county,” county commissioner Dave Anderson said.

The reason the Area Plan Commission was redoing the county sign ordinance in the first place was because of court cases elsewhere in Indiana and in other states.

The Supreme Court ruled that local government bodies cannot have “content-based” regulations — in other words, they can’t have different sets of rules for different types of signs, treating churches differently than political candidates and differently than businesses, for instance.

Local governments can regulate the size of a sign if they base it on something that has nothing to do with the sign’s content, like the zoning district the sign is in, the ruling said. That’s what the commission did.

The bigger concern, though, is something the commissioners can’t change: a state law that says communities can’t regulate the number or size of any signs 60 days before or six days after an election if those signs are 32 square feet or less, said Planning Director Chris Ritzmann.

That means each September and October during an election year, people have nearly unlimited rein to put up signs in town and out in the county because of the new state law, SEA 348. The only exception is if the sign poses a public safety hazard.

“Who wants to look at 32 square feet of political garbage … all over our landscape in October?” Biddle said.

“I think people running for office should self-limit themselves so we don’t mess up our landscape. … We’re setting ourselves up for a huge eyesore.”

Schilling said the commission had talked a little about billboards, but the members didn’t think there was great potential for billboard companies to start putting them up in Brown County. He said sign companies had said that there weren’t good places for them here.

Biddle mentioned that there might already be some protection from billboards along State Road 135 North, which was designated a scenic byway around the 1930s. But Schilling wasn’t sure about that, since he’d seen nothing written in ordinance form that offers scenic byway protections.

The commissioners plan to look at the county ordinance rewrite again at their July 19 meeting. In the meantime, Schilling said he’d draft another version that included off-premises sign restrictions so they could look at it, too.

What the new sign ordinance draft says

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.

  • The county’s new 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, agricultural 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, but a recent Supreme Court ruling says local governments can’t base sign rules on what the signs say.


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.


On under this story headline.

At under “sign ordinance draft.”

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.