Jefferson OKs new electronic sign rules

Despite last-minute amendments that some residents opposed, the Jefferson Parish Council pushed through new regulations governing electronic signs in the parish, and some business owners are already considering a court challenge.

The council unanimously approved changes to the zoning ordinances that govern electronic signs, despite serious opposition from some business owners and complaints from residents that the changes didn’t go quite far enough. Council members agreed with recommendations from the parish’s Planning Department that banned animation and special effects on all electronic signs, limited their size in certain neighborhoods and regulated how many messages can flash across them in a minute.

Ralph Brandt, president of the Civil League of Jefferson, said the new rules strike a good balance between the interests of residents and the needs of business owners. Brandt’s group has been fighting for the sign changes for years, and he described the process as “long and arduous.” However, he said the group reached a compromise with the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce and feels confident about most of the changes.

“We believe that the results of this study are well reasoned and well thought out,” said Brandt, who claimed that parts of the parish had begun to resemble a “neon jungle.”

In fact, the only issue Brandt and others had with the planning department’s recommendations was a last-minute change that reduced how long each message has to remain on electronic signs in some areas.

Under the changes, sign size is regulated by a community’s zoning, while the amount of time messages can remain on signs is regulated by the type of streets the signs abut. Electronic signs in low-intensity commercial areas can only be 25 square feet while those in more intensive commercial areas can be larger. Signs must display messages for eight seconds, six seconds or three seconds, depending on whether they are near a major high traffic street or one with fewer vehicles. Street classifications are based on a previous parish study that categorized Jefferson Parish’s thoroughfares, said Terri Wilkinson, planning director.

Debbie Setoon opposed the three-second time limit, noting it changes messages too frequently and could distract drivers. She said even a two-second distraction can be fatal.

“We don’t think any commercial need is higher than the need for public safety,” Setoon said.

But business owners said they haven’t received enough warning about the changes, and some of them discussed banding together to make a legal challenge to the rules. One of the problems business owners have with the ordinance is that if their signs are deemed “non-conforming,” they will not be allowed to replace them if they are substantially damaged. In addition, all signs will have to abide by new rules regarding brightness that go into effect in July. Al Oglesby, of the Alcor Group, said it doesn’t seem like the business community was consulted when the rules were developed.

“To me, that’s anti-business,” he said.

David Loeb, who owns Avondale Self Storage, said the parish needs to hold off on the rules until it can determine if they truly are needed. That means getting an inventory of signs and finding out if they actually affect safety, he said.

Lynda Nugent-Smith, a local real estate agent, said businesses make huge investments when they purchase electronic signs, sometimes as much as $40,000. They deserve a change to have their input included in parish rules, she said.

“There are a lot of businesses around here who have not been involved,” Smith said.