FORSYTH COUNTY — Just minutes before it went into effect, a sign moratorium that had been approved earlier in the week was changed by the Forsyth County commission.
Officials gathered Friday for an “emergency meeting” to clarify what constituted an expression sign, which do not require a permit and are the only signs allowed to be put up during the moratorium.
The change was passed 4-0, with Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills absent.
The 30-day moratorium on building and permitting signs was approved Tuesday and took effect at 5 p.m. Friday.
“This is a manifestation by the board of commissioners that an expression sign is a sign that communicates an idea,” said County Attorney Ken Jarrard. “It does not matter whether it’s commercial, non-commercial, off site, on site. The content has nothing to do with it.”
As all signs communicate an idea, the commission decided to limit expression signs to a maximum size of about 4 feet by 4 feet.
The moratorium was put into effect following a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, which held that local governments could not deny signs based on content.
“My thought is in respect to the recent … case of Reed vs. the town of Gilbert, [Ariz.],” Jarrard said at the work session on Tuesday. “That was a case that came down last week where the Supreme Court took a fairly exacting view of content-based restrictions.”
Jarrard said Forsyth is not the only county enacting a moratorium and that there had been a ripple effect among local governments following the decision.
“The moratorium would be to simply allow my office to take our sign code and look at it very thoroughly to be sure that, based upon that holding, there are no unconstitutional infirmities in our sign code,” he said.
Jarrard added that he also wanted to ensure there were no issues with the county’s code, as a “cottage industry” could pop up.
“We have seen this before where opportunistic companies may flood us with 18, 19, 20 sign applications, get them denied, then challenge the sign code saying the whole sign code is unconstitutional,” he said.
Billboard companies have submitted several applications in response to the moratorium.
“Some of them are new, some of them may be updates to existing structures, but none the less I think they were submitted based upon, candidly, this Supreme Court decision,” Jarrard said.
“In addition, we have also received correspondence from an attorney for one of the companies suggesting that our moratorium is illegal and unconstitutional.”
According to Jarrard, applications for signs that were submitted before the moratorium will be processed normally.