062917 Billboards: County sign rules hit legal head winds
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Billboards: County sign rules hit legal head winds

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Two billboards destroyed by Hurricane Matthew last fall are back up on Highway 17 in Pawleys Island and Litchfield. Though victims of the storm, they benefited from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that rendered portions of the Georgetown County sign ordinance unenforceable.

“We originally told the billboard companies they could not put those back up,” said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. “The attorneys got involved.”

The 2015 decision stemmed from a challenge to the sign ordinance in the town of Gilbert, Ariz., by the pastor of a church that was cited for putting out temporary signs to advertise its Sunday services. Although the ordinance was upheld in the lower courts, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously it was an unconstitutional limit on “content based” speech.

The ruling came just months after Georgetown County amended its sign ordinance to prohibit digital billboards. A survey of signs along Highway 17 on Waccamaw Neck found that of 35 billboards, only eight conformed with the ordinance. A sign at the Islander bar in Pawleys Island and on a lot next to Eagles Beachwear in Litchfield were denied permits to rebuild after they were damaged beyond 50 percent of their value.

“The intent is to do away with nonconforming uses,” Johnson said. “The way our ordinance is written doesn’t allow that.”

But the county ordinance talks about business signs and therefore could be challenged because of the commercial content of their message.

Georgetown County isn’t the only place the Supreme Court ruling has had an impact. Local government associations in South Carolina are working on a model ordinance the would meet the court’s standard.

Johnson doesn’t believe the ruling will allow new billboards. Those still have to meet other zoning requirements, such as spacing and restrictions on use.

But it has led the county to take a hands-off approach to curbside signs. “Last year, we would have pulled those up,” Johnson said. “If we didn’t allow political signs, we could do it.”

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