The Fairhope City Council approved a measure to take the city’s sign regulations out of its zoning ordinance to create a standalone set of rules, and adopted new regulations for film crews in the city at its regular meeting Monday, April 11.
The new standalone sign ordinance gives the city authority to regulate signs in its police jurisdiction, which extends generally three miles beyond the city’s corporate limits and touches Daphne’s southern jurisdictional line.
The council was prepared to vote on the measure at its previous meeting, but Councilman Rich Mueller said he did not think the public received enough warning about the issue, which he said could affect residents who do not have a vote in municipal elections because they live outside the city limits.
Mueller’s objection was shared by at least one resident, who said he was concerned the city was breaking the law in asserting its power outside its corporate limits. Ricky Thompson said he supports sign ordinances, but not Fairhope’s standalone ordinance, saying the city must first seek permission from the state to enforce zoning issues outside of corporate limits.
“I am a supporter of sign ordinances when properly adopted, but this has not been done properly,” he said. “Case law is abundant. I believe the city of Fairhope is more concerned with beauty than the public health, safety and welfare of the citizens. Beauty should not be the top priority.”
Planning director Jonathan Smith said the planning commission has been advised by attorneys that a standalone ordinance is the best way to handle rules regarding signage outside corporate limits. He said the city’s planning powers are given to it by the state under the city’s police jurisdiction, so the city should be able to enforce sign rules in those areas.
Smith also said the zoning ordinance regulates land use and signage is a free speech issue.
“Signage is not widely considered a land use [issue], it is considered a free speech issue,” Smith said. “We feel we need to create the standalone ordinance to resolve some future issues that could arise.”
Smith said the standalone ordinance is essentially the same as the previous sign ordinance and existing non-conforming signs in the police jurisdiction will be grandfathered in. The only time existing non-conforming signs will have to change is if the business that uses them closes.
Council President Jack Burrell asked Smith about Thompson’s concerns. He also asked Smith to clarify how other cities regulate signs.
“Nationwide, I would say more and more cities are doing this,” Smith said. “The primary function of a zoning ordinance is to govern land use and, in my opinion, signage is not a land use issue.”
City Attorney Tut Wynne agreed.
“If the sign rules stay in the zoning ordinance then yes, it must stay within corporate limits,” Wynne said. “But this will be under the police powers. I think the modern trend is that sign ordinances can be extended to police jurisdictions.”
Mayor Tim Kant said Fairhope previously had a standalone sign ordinance, but the city combined ordinances to appease local businesses who wanted to find all the regulations in one place.
He said the city must be careful to treat everyone the same when it comes to a free speech issue like the sign ordinance.
“Where you get sued and lose is when you deviate from the rules and give preference to one over the other,” Kant said. “So as we move forward we need to be consistent. Whatever the sign ordinance is, it is. This makes it safer for the city to not be sued later on.”
The city’s new regulations for film productions, including a $1,000 permit application fee, passed unanimously.
The regulations require a pre-production meeting between the city’s film liaison and the production company’s location manager, who must provide dates and locations for shooting and must carry a $1 million insurance policy for general liability, automotive liability and workers’ compensation.
Production companies may also be asked to pay to use certain city facilities and services at the same rate as other for-profit ventures.
Before the vote, Councilwoman Diana Brewer asked Community Affairs and Recreation Director Sherry Sullivan if the $1,000 permit fee would deter film crews from coming to Fairhope. Brewer noted that the city of Mobile does not charge a permit fee and Mobile Film Office Director Eva Golson has discouraged other cities from doing so.
Sullivan said she looked at ordinances from other cities around the Southeast and took ideas from each one. She said the permit fee was fair because of the amount of staff involvement some production crews require.
“I feel like $1,000 is the least that we can ask because of the amount of resources film crews require,” Sullivan said. “I think this is perfectly reasonable for crews who want to film in Fairhope.”
Sullivan takes most of the calls from production companies, and she said they require resources from the city while they are in town. She said the permit fee might deter some smaller, “low-impact” companies from applying but most of those companies don’t contact the city in the first place.
“The bigger films that come to town use a lot of resources and I don’t think they will blink an eye at the permit fee,” she said.
Student film crews from Eastern Shore schools will be asked to complete the application process but will not have to pay the permit fee.
Burrell said the new rules will help the city be aware of what film crews do while they are in Fairhope, and will give companies an idea of what the city expects from them as well.
“I think they will like coming into town and knowing ahead of time what is expected of them,” he said.
Sullivan said the city was still “getting its feet wet” in the film business and suggested rules can always be changed at a later date.
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