Forsyth County staff followed code in citing a man for his “See Rock City” barn roof sign, commissioners agreed, but they also shared sentiments expressed by residents.
Those words were somewhere along the lines of: “Really?”
Public sentiment has suggested allowing the prohibited sign stay painted on the old barn on Hwy. 9, whether the white wording is a code violation or not.
County Attorney Ken Jarrard told commissioners at a Tuesday work session that the government can’t regulate a sign based on its content. But in this case, the sign’s message has made it a hit locally.
“Part of the thing that gets this particular issue so emotional is the iconic or Americana sense of the message on this roof. ‘See Rock City.’
“Who could be against ‘See Rock City,’ right? It’s got this history,” Jarrard said.
“Unfortunately, one thing government cannot do is care much about the message of a sign when it comes to regulating.”
A roof sign is prohibited under county code regardless of what it states, Jarrard said.
Ben Morris was cited April 3 for his “unpermitted roof sign” on the barn.
Morris said he restored the original painted sign, a popular advertisement throughout the 1940s and ’50s urging Americans to “See Rock City.”
The tourist destination is in northwest Georgia near Chattanooga.
However, roof signs aren’t permitted unless they existed prior to the passage of the sign ordinance in 1996.
The county issued Morris a citation after county staff found no evidence of the sign based on aerial photos from five years ago.
Morris contends that a handyman made the discovery that the sign was original while up on the roof to make repairs. The paint had been worn away and covered in rust, he said.
Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said she felt the issue was blown out of proportion.
“This seems like it was a common sense thing that could have been handled and never reached this proportion,” Mills said.
Mills, a county native, said she’s spoken with many people who remember a Rock City barn in that area years ago.
“I believe he’s grandfathered,” she said.
Chairman Pete Amos said he also can remember signs in the area, but added that this shouldn’t set a precedent, as this case is considered on its individual merits.
The board asked legal staff to take the “historical approach,” using anecdotal evidence that the iconic advertisement existed decades ago and should be grandfathered in.
The issue remains as to whether to prosecute the citation, which has been set for April 18 in Forsyth County Magistrate Court.
Jarrard hasn’t yet made a legal decision, but he brought the topic to the board to gather additional information and “vindicate” the planning director, Tom Brown.
“I know that certainly members of staff and the board have been a little frustrated with how these issues sort of germinate and take on a life of their own. There’s this misunderstanding of how did we get here and why is this an issue,” Jarrard said. “The community and development director’s job is to enforce the code.”
Commissioner Jim Boff said he wouldn’t want to be in Brown’s position.
“He’s sort of the guy that everybody’s going to blame because he’s the director,” Boff said, “and he’s just trying to do his job.”
He stood by the county’s ordinance, but also requested that the county attorney consider the information from county residents who recall a “See Rock City” sign in the area years ago.
Jarrard said he would discuss the feedback from the board with the planning director and the barn’s painter to hopefully reach a resolution.
“No one is going to be unreasonable in this. No one is out to take this iconic message off,” he said.
“We are simply wanting to make sure there’s no precedent set, but otherwise, the county wants to do the right thing, and I get that from the board of commissioners.”