Hall County will issue a moratorium Thursday on sign permits after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month upended restrictions on some local government ordinances that ostensibly curtail free speech rights.
County officials are expected to approve necessary changes to the sign code by the end of September.
“I think it will be fairly simple,” said Hall County Attorney Bill Blalock. “It’s a relatively minor thing, but when it gets all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, it does cause ripples and waves.”
Both Hall County and Gainesville officials said they will ensure that sign regulations do not infringe on the First Amendment.
The high court ruled that the city government of Gilbert, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, imposed such severe restrictions on temporary signs, including on their size, duration and number, directing motorists to nearby church services that it constituted a violation of the First Amendment.
Signs with political and ideological messages were granted much greater leeway by the city, specifically in terms of their size.
The church had been cited for violating city code on multiple occasions.
While the court’s decision was unanimous, several justices warned of a slippery slope that could undo reasonable sign ordinances in municipalities and counties across the nation because of the ruling’s new standard for what constitutes lawful restrictions.
For example, they expressed concern that local government codes that allow for exemptions on signs related to public safety and historical points of interest might have to be scrapped.
Hall County uses a list of criteria to determine restrictions on local signs because, according to code, when “left completely unregulated, signs can become a threat to public safety as a traffic hazard and detriment to property values and to Hall County’s overall public welfare as an aesthetic nuisance.”
Blalock said he would review the county’s ordinance to make sure it complies with the court’s ruling.
“I think what we’re going to have to do is we’re going to have to put language in a couple of places dealing with temporary ordinances that basically states that nothing in our ordinance is based upon the content of the sign itself, the language of the sign,” he added. “So far as I know, we don’t have delineation between religious signs and political signs.”
The Board of Commissioners said it hoped any changes would be made as quickly as possible.
“This is going to be an inconvenience to some people,” said Chairman Richard Mecum.
According to Planning Director Srikanth Yamala, the county does not currently have any pending sign applications awaiting approval.
“We usually issue anywhere between 10 to 12 sign permits a month,” he added.
Gainesville, meanwhile, is not currently considering any changes to its sign ordinance, which underwent a complete rewrite in 2005.
“The last amendment was in June of 2013, which gave more relief by allowing temporary banners to be displayed within the front yard if affixed to the ground,” said Gainesville Planning Manager Matt Tate.
“We are planning to start the process of amending the Unified Land Development Code, possibly in the late fall, which will include changes to our sign code. As part of that process, we will be working with a consultant to look at our sign code to make sure it is content-neutral given the latest (Supreme Court) ruling.”
Tate said the city treats all temporary signs the same regardless of its existing use or content.
“We do not regulate speech, but we do regulate the location, number, type and size of the temporary signs allowed,” he added.