The Fairhope City Council April 27 delayed a vote to amend its current zoning ordinance and create a standalone sign ordinance to extend from the corporate limits to the city’s police jurisdiction.
The council will vote May 11 on a resolution to give the city authority to regulate signs in its police jurisdiction, which extends 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 city elections because they live outside the city limits.
Planning Director Jonathan Smith said Hand-Arrendall attorney Chris Gill, who handles the city’s land use issues, recommended the city create a standalone sign ordinance because the zoning ordinance is an inappropriate place for a free-speech issue like signage.
“The biggest change is that we would have authority within our police jurisdiction, rather than just city limits, to enforce the provisions of our sign ordinance,” Smith told the councilors. “That’s a pretty big change. But as far as how signs are regulated it won’t change much.”
Smith said the planning commission gave a favorable recommendation for the move, but the city had not advertised the change.
“So we have citizens who are unaware of this ordinance we are about to vote on?” Mueller asked. “I think the public needs to be made aware that we are about to adopt it.”
Smith said the planning commission did hold a public hearing on whether or not to take the sign rules out of the zoning ordinance, but the substance of the ordinance was not discussed at that meeting.
“Some of the ones just outside the city limits might have some concerns,” Mueller said. “If we slip this by them without them having some say so, it could be a problem.”
Smith said signs that do not conform to the new ordinance would be considered legal, non-conforming signs.
Burrell said even though the council voted to table the ordinance until the next meeting, there would not be time to schedule a public hearing before then. Councilman Kevin Boone suggested residents could speak to the issue during public participation before the next meeting. The council reserves time for public participation on agenda items before voting on them at each meeting.
“I think Councilman Mueller brings up a good point,” Council President Jack Burrell said. “I was okay with us suspending the rules and passing it tonight, but that’s just my opinion. I don’t know that this will open the floodgates for public discussion, but being out there now maybe it will give more people an opportunity to see it.”
Mueller said he agreed with the new ordinance as written, but he wanted the public to have enough time to bring concerns to the council.
The standalone ordinance will address what some council members said was the look of some signs on State Highway 181, specifically ones like the Murphy USA gas station sign in front of Walmart which stands on a 20-foot pole.
If similar signs are damaged or need to be updated in the future, the new ordinance would require them to be replaced by conforming signs. Under the ordinance, gas station signs must be no more than 12 square feet per sign face and should not be more than five feet tall.
Title VI program approved at Nix Center
In other business, the city adopted a resolution signifying that it approves the Title VI program to assure that no person will be discriminated against on the grounds of race, color, national origin or sex at the James P. Nix Senior Activity Center.
Nix Center manager Sarah Smith said the senior center, which uses a bus to transport members to activities, is required to comply with Title VI regulations in order to receive federal funding. The Nix Center receives funding from the Alabama Department of Transportation for its bus service.
“The purpose is to make sure we are getting information out to the citizens of Fairhope that may have low English proficiency,” Smith said. “We use our bus all around the city, not just the downtown area, and in some different demographic areas. We want to make sure we are serving everyone properly. We want to make sure that people who speak another language are able to use our services.”
Mueller asked Smith if the language barrier had become a problem at the Nix Center. According to 2010 Census data and a 2007-2011 American Community Survey, approximately 2.4 percent of residents in Baldwin County speak English “less than very well.”
“It actually hasn’t,” Smith said. “We surveyed all of the different city departments to see how often they interacted with people who had difficulty speaking English, and the biggest department who faced a problem was the revenue counter, which is separate from the Nix Center.”
Part of the Nix Center’s plan to comply with Title VI regulations is to train staff in the use of language identification flashcards and teaching staff the importance of the requirements. The Nix Center will provide general information such as operating hours on the center’s website in other languages and will provide written communications in English and Spanish on interior bus signage.
The city also committed to surveying bus drivers and staff who have direct contact with people who do not speak English. The city will provide access to Title VI complaint procedures and forms at the Nix Center.
According to HHS.gov, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to intentional discrimination as well as procedures, criteria or methods that appear neutral but have a discriminatory effect on individuals because of their race, color or national origin.