Ordinances delayed again

Published 11:18 am Friday, April 13, 2012

GATESVILLE – After months of debate, two new ordinances proposed for Gates County still wait to be adopted.

At their meeting here April 4, the Gates County Board of Commissioners agreed to gather with the county’s Planning Board in a workshop setting to hash out the wording of a landscape ordinance and signage ordinance.

The landscape ordinance was initially introduced to the commissioners in December of last year, but was not adopted due to a disagreement over performance bonds (where a new business would have to put up a certain amount of money, refundable upon following the guidelines of the ordinance).

According to Gates County Planning Director Morgan Jethro, a landscaping ordinance would allow for the “uniformity of commercial areas, especially Merchants Commerce Center….people want it to look nice, they want it to be aesthetically pleasing. That’s the purpose of this (ordinance), for commercial development areas to look better to the eye,” she said back in December.

Jethro said the ordinance basically addresses what she referred to as “visual separation between parking lots and residences – a buffer between a business and a residence.”

She stressed that the ordinance will not apply to single-family homes, or mobile homes, or multi-family dwellings (duplexes) on a single lot. Additionally, the ordinance does not apply to existing businesses, as long as they do not construct an addition of 30 percent or more of their existing space within a 12-month period.

The ordinance will impact new businesses, new industrial areas and if an existing commercial building changes its traditional usage.

Those new commercial entities will first need to submit an application as well as a drawing (hand drawn or professionally done) of the scope of their landscaping. The ordinance covers items such as vegetation (type, height at maturity and spacing from other plants/shrubs/trees), mulch, grass, irrigation and types of screening used to hide dumpsters.

Jethro said the ordinance will apply to residential multi-family use (apartment complexes). It will not apply to mobile home parks.

She presented the sign ordinance to the commissioners for consideration at their March 7 meeting. Jethro kept her presentation simple and to the point, basically going over what types of signs were permissible and which were not. She said the purpose of implementing a sign ordinance was to limit the visual distraction to motorists and preserve land values.

Jethro said blinking, flashing or moving signs would top the list of signs deemed as distracting. She added there were a great number of signs that were exempt from the ordinance, to include those that are less than six feet in total area, construction signs, traffic signs, religious signs, campaign signs, no trespassing signs, no hunting signs, real estate signs, etc.

After the commissioners (only four were present at the March 7 meeting) listened and debated the sign ordinance, its implementation failed due to a deadlocked (2-2) vote.

Both ordinances were re-visited at the commissioners’ April 4 meeting. There, Jethro said she had performed additional research into what neighboring counties have within their regulations concerning landscaping and signage ordinances. She said Camden, Chowan, Currituck and Perquimans have both landscaping and signage ordinances. Bertie and Hertford only have signage ordinances and Pasquotank has a landscaping ordinance.

In regards to the local landscaping ordinance, Jethro said she had heard concerns about the list of trees and shrubs proposed in the Gates County document.

“Before our Planning Board approved this they did seek outside counsel from Katy Shook of the Cooperative Extension Office, our area’s Horticulture Agent,” Jethro stated. “She reviewed the list and I incorporated all of her recommended changes into the ordinance. Some of the trees/shrubs were completely removed, some had modifications made. We have done our due diligence on this. We’ve had other agencies review our work.”

The commissioners, at previous meetings, have conducted the required public hearings on both ordinances. However, local resident Mary Lou Glennon had signed up for the public comments portion of last week’s meeting and was allowed to make those comments during the discussion over the ordinances.

“If there is going to be an ordinance it should be a good one,” Glennon suggested. “You need to remove the invasive plants listed now and make the plant descriptions technically accurate.”

Glennon said she and her husband, who operate a native plant nursery, had suggested to the Planning Board in January a list of trees, plants and shrubs that were suitable for Gates County’s soil and climate. She said these suggested types of vegetation had the highest survival rate and presented several documents from other agencies detailing native, non-native and invasive plants.

“We don’t need to copy and paste (from ordinances of other counties) what I feel are inaccurate descriptions (of the plants),” Glennon stressed.

Glennon said she and her husband had studied Gates County’s proposed landscaping ordinance and made recommendations in the wording.

Jethro said two of the invasive plants Glennon referenced as part of the county’s landscaping ordinance were not on the list.

“It’s going to be very difficult for a landscaper to locate only North Carolina native species in a nursery,” Jethro noted. “You just can’t landscape with long leaf pines and dogwoods. I trust Mrs. Shook’s opinion. She made some adjustments and recommended some changes.”

While the commissioners consensually agreed that the Planning Board had performed due diligence on making revisions to both ordinances, they still felt additional discussion was warranted.

“I’d like to see us have a workshop where all five of us can sit down and talk about this before we do anything on it,” Commissioner Kenneth Jernigan suggested, adding that would include the signage ordinance.

“I’ve had conversation with a couple of commissioners on this before today and the recommendation Mr. Jernigan just made is exactly my feeling on this, that we hold a workshop,” Commissioner Jack Owens stated. “There’s so much in the landscaping and signage documents that I agree with, but maybe some of my fellow board members may disagree with. If we had the opportunity to go over both ordinances, line by line, we could make changes where we had disagreements (over the wording). I’ve made it clear at previous meetings that we need to get these ordinances on the books and adapt them as we grow.”

Owens added he would also like to see the board take Glennon’s recommendations under advisement during the workshop.

“I tend to agree (with a workshop), but one thing I want to make clear is that I appreciate what the Planning Board has done and is trying to do (with these two ordinances),” Commissioner John Hora noted. “This is completely outside my level of expertise. I’m a financial guy, I look at numbers. We need to use critical thinking skills on this. We all want to do the best job for Gates County. We have a Planning Board that’s doing the same. Because we’re not experts (on plants and signs), anything we can do to share knowledge and improve the situation I’m in favor of.”

Board Vice-Chairman Henry Jordan, who shifted over to the lead chair at last week’s meeting in the absence of Chairman Graham Twine, said he also favored a workshop.

“One of my concerns is that when we put ordinances in place we need to make sure we do what’s right,” Jordan said. “In the past we’ve been guilty of putting a zoning ordinance in place that has not served us in a way that was needed. We’re not experts (in signs and landscaping) so we need to use all avenues available to make sure that this is what fits Gates County. We, the commissioners, have to sign off on this and we need to fully understand what we’re signing. We’re held responsible….if it’s bad, the commissioners made it bad, it doesn’t go back to who put it together.”

With suggestions from both Jordan and Hora to include the Planning Board, Jernigan made the motion to hold a workshop, open to the public, to further discuss the landscaping and signage ordinances. Owens offered a second and the motion was approved by a 4-0 vote.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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