PAC approves Manchester overlay district

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 19, 2014 

Over some objections, the Columbus Planning Advisory Commission voted unanimously to approve an overlay district for a section of Manchester Expressway that would ban billboards and enact guidelines for commercial development.

The commission’s approval means the ordinance will be sent to Columbus Council for a final decision.

The overlay district would stretch from J.R. Allen Parkway north to the Harris County line.

The ordinance would establish guidelines for landscaping, signage, building materials, location and amount of parking and other aspects to “effectively enhance the city’s image as a desirable place to live, work and shop.”

Similar overlay districts exist on parts of Macon Road, the J.R. Allen Parkway and Victory Drive. With the exception of Victory Drive, the other districts prohibit billboards.

Jeff Hudson, with CBS Outdoors, which deals in billboards, challenged that aspect of the ordinance at the commission’s meeting Wednesday morning.

“What other businesses are you taking the right away to do business in that area?” Hudson asked. “Why do we have a sign ordinance in place if we’re going to put in overlay districts that take away billboard companies’ right to grow in this area, which will probably be a crucial area for us and businesses to have billboard options?”

Will Johnson, planning division chief of the city’s planning department, said such restrictions on billboards are common and becoming more common around the country.

Tom Flournoy, a real estate developer, supports the overlay district and spoke Wednesday in its defense.

“It complements what we’ve done with Gateways all over Columbus,” Flournoy said. “An overlay is all about visibility that tourists, residents and visitors see when they drive in. It’s not about zoning use, it’s about visibility. That’s the true benefit of these overlays.”

Flournoy said that even though an overlay imposes restrictions, those restrictions are applied to everyone, so the playing field is level.

“An overlay does not restrict zoning uses,” he said. “It only requires that a developer use certain kinds of materials on buildings, that you have parking located in certain areas. It will prohibit billboards, flashing signs and such. But everybody has to follow the same leter of the law, so it makes it fair for everybody.”

Marty Flournoy, another developer and brother of Tom Flournoy, said the overlay districts are placing too many hurdles in the way of small business owners. With the severe restriction on the size of signs, it’s hard for a new local business to let people know they’re there and open.

“You’ve got Auto-Zone, yes, they can get by with a smaller sign. McDonald’s doesn’t even need a sign. You look at their building and you know what it is. But the mom-and-pops are the ones that suffer,” Flournoy said. “We all would love to go down the highway and have it look like a pristine national park, but the fact is small businesses rely on billboards.”

Similarly, when a variance is needed, the local businessman doesn’t have the funds to hire an attorney to handle the process of dealing with the city the way big businesses do.

“Who has the time to come down and politick with the city?” Flournoy asked. “Big businesses will always have the time and the lawyers. But mom and pop are too busy running their business to come down and fight with the city.”

Now that the PAC has approved of the overlay ordinance, it will be sent to Columbus Council for two readings at separate meetings, where supporters and opponents of the ordinance will have more chances to speak out.

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