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Man fights to keep barn roof sign
County: 'See Rock City' painting violates code
Barn WEB 1
Ben Morris holds a citation he received from the county, which contends the roof sign on his barn violates county ordinance. - photo by Alyssa LaRenzie

It’s a bright red homage to Georgia’s history.

Though it became a rusting, brown dilapidated barn, the old building has been painted up with the words “See Rock City” on the roof.

But it turns out that iconic message, a time-honored tradition throughout north Georgia, is also a Forsyth County code violation, according to the planning department.

Ben Morris received a citation for his “unpermitted roof sign” on Wednesday, though the local business owner isn’t about to paint over history, he said.

The advertisements to see the Lookout Mountain tourist destination went up across the state and the region in the 1940s and ’50s, with barn roofs being the most popular canvases.

Morris is proud of the three short words displayed in bold and white on the barn roof and he’s ready to fight to keep it.

“We took the historically correct colors — the red and the black — and restored it exactly as it would have been in decades gone by,” he said. “People love it. Everyone has said it’s just a piece of Americana.”

Everyone, that is, except Forsyth County government, which has a “content-neutral sign ordinance,” explained planning director Tom Brown.

“Out of respect for the First Amendment, we don’t regulate signs by their content, and we don’t pick to say, ‘Well, we like what that sign says, so we’re going to give it a free pass,’” Brown said. “We don’t allow roof signs in the county.”

The lone exception, he said, would be to grandfather in a sign existing before 1996, when the ordinance took effect.

“You can’t expand it, and once you remove it, it’s gone,” he said. “But you can maintain it.”

However, Brown said the county has yet to find proof that the advertisement had ever previously graced the barn’s roof.

Aerial images from about five years ago show the barn from all four sides and not a trace of the wording can be seen, he said.

The restoration work began when Morris opened his car sales business at the old house on Highway 9 about three years ago.

“In all fairness, the house probably should’ve been demolished, but I love history,” he said. “When I took it, I tried to restore it to what you would’ve seen in a north Georgia farmhouse in the late ’30s, with the same lapboards. And I furnished it with the antique radios and antique metal clocks to have the flavor of what you would find in this period in our history.”

Morris has yellow marigolds outside in the summer and, in the winter, yellow and purple pansies, as is customary in north Georgia, he said.

After the house and the yard had the look he wanted, Morris moved farther out on the property to repair the old barn.

“It was by accident that we actually determined it,” he said. “It was up there that [a handyman] discovered it. It was only under very, very faint. You can imagine something painted in the ’40s or ’50s how faint it would be after so much time, and the barn was in very bad shape and disrepair.”

Morris was thrilled with the find and began to research the barns he’d seen as a child, finding that few remain today.

The restoration was finished in August, and the code enforcement officers first came in October, he said.

“I really thought I was doing a tribute to our community to do this. Apparently, our government thought differently,” he said, pulling out a stack of papers related to his dealings with the county.

“By the looks of it, you would think I’m John Dillinger.”

While Morris hasn’t robbed any banks, the county became aware of the roof sign while working with him on other code violations at the site, Brown said.

He said several changes have been made without the required permits, including adding buildings, storing cars and other signs.

“Some of them he’s been able to correct,” Brown said. “This one, we haven’t been able to get squared away, the roof sign.”

After several months of warnings and meetings, he said, the county finally delivered a citation.

Morris is preparing for his April 18 appearance in Magistrate Court to argue the citation.

Aside from the date the sign was first painted, he plans to address whether the county’s definition of roof sign actually applies.

Pete Amos, chairman of the county commission, said staff is working to find proof that the sign existed years ago.

“I grew up seeing Rock City signs around here and north Georgia everywhere. I’m sure we had some here in the county,” Amos said. “As a youngster I remember seeing them, but I can’t say definitely it was on that barn.”

He has a spot in his heart for Rock City barns as a resident, but as a commissioner, Amos said the county needs to follow the sign ordinance that’s been in place 17 years.

The citation’s court date will need to be fulfilled first, but the commission could address the ordinance in the future if it decided to do so, he said.

At the state level, both the Senate and House of Representatives approved bills during the just concluded 2013 session that would promote the restoration of old barns that once promoted Georgia tourist locations.

The bill essentially requires the Department of Natural Resources “to approve applications for such structures so long as no public funds from the state of Georgia are used.”

Gov. Nathan Deal has not yet signed the bill into law.