Newest town target is nonprofits signs

Published 6:16 pm Tuesday, April 23, 2019

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Nonprofits are the latest targets in Smithfield’s purge — the removal, and sometimes destruction — of temporary signs in the town. This latest round comes after some business owners were shocked to see a town employee taking their feather signs without notice. 

Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams admits that the whole sign controversy has devolved into a “sticky wicket,” and the Town Council now plans to formally address the issue this month at the committee level.  

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Many nonprofits and business owners are simply confused because the town’s rules on temporary signs are not well known, nor have they apparently been widely enforced until recently.

The Smithfield Woman’s Club became upset because town staff took their event signs and destroyed them without notice, said member Diane Hill. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Hill admits that that signs in Smithfield had gotten out of control, but thinks that town staff could have at least told them before taking the signs, said Hill.

“They destroyed our private property. Our signs are made professionally by VA Displays on (South) Church Street and we pay to get them done well,” said Hill in an email. 

Hill said the town took its plant sale signs, but the Club was able to keep its A-frame signs. 

A few weeks ago, some Smithfield business owners were convinced that a thief was on the loose, as a town staffer drove around and removed their $300-plus feather signs without notice. One business owner’s daughter — who jumped in her car to chase the unknown sign-taker — ended up in a minor automobile collision with the town staffer in the midst of the confusion. 

The feather signs were returned to the business owners. Hill is upset that the Woman’s Club was not afforded the same courtesy. 

“They decided they would enforce the ‘codes’ but they could have done it in a better way. This is a small town and we try to work together and help each other,” said Hill. 

“This was quite a learning process. Hope the town manager (Brian Thrower) will be kind enough to give people a heads up when they are breaking the rules. The Woman’s Club of Smithfield tries to do right when we are informed,” she said. 

Mary Cole, founder of Sundays at Four, and more recently, the upcoming Ghosts and Saints of Olde Towne Smithfield, dashed out to save her signs when she heard that a purge was underway. 

Cole had A-frame signs in front of Taste of Smithfield, as well as Christ Episcopal Church advertising Sundays at Four and Ghosts and Saints of Olde Town Smithfield. 

Cole was told by town staff that she had to fill out an application that included signatures from each property owner where she wanted to place a sign, which she did. 

The application for an A-frame sign in front of Taste of Smithfield was rejected, said Cole. 

If Cole’s sign was in front of the restaurant, then Taste of Smithfield’s A-frame had to go, according to Smithfield Planning and Zoning Administrator John Settle in an email to Cole. 

Only one A-frame sign is allowed per business or property, said Thrower. 

In frustration, Cole wrote a letter to Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams. 

“These nonprofit signs are usually up about a month, or less, in advance of an event, then they are removed. I agree, that to litter our town with signs is not acceptable. However, the existing rules that are in place are not flexible and do not support these nonprofits, or businesses, which depend daily on signs for their attraction to visitors,” wrote Cole. 

Williams agreed that this particular method of enforcing the town’s ordinance wasn’t the best for community relations, but the signs were out of control.

“It looked as tacky as the dickens,” he said, adding that in addition to the feather signs, the town was especially incensed over what it calls “bandit” signs — small signs that advertise gutter cleaning or mulch and just have a phone number. 

Those go up under the cover of darkness and are not taken down, said Williams. 

Williams said the town was trying to be fair — if it took down the “bandit” signs, it needed to take all of them down. 

Williams said this enforcement hurts him too, as he belongs to several organizations, including Benn’s United Methodist Church and VFW Post 8545, which also put up signs. 

Those signs are vital to bring in people that, in turn, help the community, he said, adding that the clubs he belongs to have been “bending his ear.”  

VFW Post 8545 puts out signs for its twice-a-month breakfasts, and organizer Howard Hinnant said they are now working with Williams on getting a permit. 

Williams said that in the case of the VFW, the signs go up the Monday before the Saturday breakfast and are taken down after it’s over. 

Meanwhile, the fence at the VDOT parking lot is covered in banners announcing a variety of events — from a cemetery open house to a tractor pull — and permission to post them seems to vary.

Isle of Wight Fair Committee Chairman Danny Byrum said he gets the permit from VDOT, since that agency owns the property. 

Todd Ballance with Historic St. Luke’s said they got their permit from the town. 

Jake Browder of Browder’s Fresh Pickins’ checked into it and found out that commercial signs — in his case for strawberries — were not allowed there and he has since removed his banner. 

Over at the intersection of Battery Park and Nike Park roads, another hot spot for banners, Optimist President Michael Murphy said they got their permit from the town. 

Murphy said the problem stems from people not knowing how all this works and added that more communication is needed. 

VDOT does maintain the commuter lot and its permit application must be accompanied by documentation by the locality that all approvals and permissions have been granted, according to VDOT spokesperson Nina Napolitano. 

VDOT does not maintain the intersection at Battery Park and Nike Park roads, as that is under the Town of Smithfield’s jurisdiction, said Napolitano. 

Williams said the feather sign issue first appeared in the Spring 2018 town newsletter, “The Municipal Mailer.” It was on page four under “Code Compliance Corner,” and included a small, rather vague graphic of three feather signs. The entry did not state that the signs would be removed, only that they are popular and then went on to describe the ordinance.

“… and we look forward to working with you to obtain the required feather flag permits.” 

The sign issue did not reappear until the most recent “Mailer,” which came out after the feather sign controversy erupted. In that newsletter, Williams mentioned feather signs in the fifth paragraph in his “Letter from the Mayor,” and apologized for the inconvenience the sweep had caused. The feather flags were again included in the Codes Compliance Corner, but there was no mention of them being taken without notice. 

There was also nothing in either newsletter about other types of temporary signs being a problem or that enforcement was imminent.  

Williams said the town did not have enough staff to personally notify everyone that their signs could be taken. 

“We’re understaffed,” he said. 

Williams was reminded that the town has a newspaper to help inform residents, but at that point shifted to talking about the town newsletter as the place that residents get their official town information.

The plan to crack down on temporary signs in the town was hatched during a recent Town Council retreat. However, how that enforcement would be carried out was not discussed, said Town Council members Beth Haywood and Valerie Butler after the first dust-up over the business feather signs. 

In the end, it seems that most folks are unaware of the rules and are generally confused about them. 

Browder said the town had gone over all the rules concerning signs and he found them to be confusing and hard to follow. 

The ordinance needs some work, he said, adding that most people find their way to his farm from his signs. 

The town ordinance on signs is lengthy and covers all types — from permanent business signs to “… all other flutter, spinning, inflatable or similar type signs …” — the latter of which is under the prohibited category. 

In the case of temporary signs and banners, certain types can be put up no more than 14 days prior to the event and must be removed no more than seven days later. Temporary signs can be put up for a maximum of 30 consecutive days and removed for 30 days before being put up again and that’s only for three months of the year.  

The $10 temporary sign fee can be waived for bona fide nonprofits, according to the ordinance. 

The sign ordinance isn’t new — it is dated Sept. 1, 1998. 

Thrower encourages businesses and civic groups to apply for a sign permit, and that the town will continue to remove those located in the right-of-way without a permit. 

“Interested parties may contact John Settle, planning and zoning administrator at 365-4200 should they have questions regarding the temporary sign ordinance.  The town appreciates everyone’s assistance and cooperation with this beautification and safety initiative,” said Thrower.  

Those wanting to put a banner at the VDOT commuter lot can contact the Franklin Residency at 757-346-3072.  {/mprestriction}