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Myrtle Beach's electronic sign debate lights up

Some members of the Myrtle Beach City Council thought the debate over electronic changeable message signs was over, but the council has decided to look at the issue again.

The topic took on a new life Tuesday after more than a dozen people, including the city's first manager and planning director, pleaded with the council to reconsider allowing the brightly lit signs.

Council members chose to study the issue more with an "eye toward compromise," said Councilwoman Susan Grissom-Means, who asked her colleagues to agree to a delay.

"If we vote today, I'm going to vote no on everything [in the sign ordinance]," Means said.

The council was scheduled Tuesday to give second and final approval to an ordinance permitting the signs, as well as electronic billboards, within certain districts inside city limits, including in the downtown entertainment district and in commercial areas such as along Kings Highway.

The proposed ordinance would have allowed the changeable-electronic-copy portion of any sign to be no more than 50 percent of the sign's overall size, but the council had not settled on whether to allow animation or how often to allow people to change the messages on the signs. The ordinance also says that for every electronic billboard that goes up, two non-electronic billboards have to come down.

Former city manager David Stradinger, hotel owner David Brittain and former city planner Sam Burns, who wrote the city's visual-clutter ordinances in the 1970s, showed up to express their concern about the sign ordinance.

Burns said the new ordinance would undo much of the good the 30-year-old visual-clutter rules had done to rid the city of a proliferation of billboards and unregulated displays.

He said on-premise signs are primarily to identify a business and its services - for example, Walgreen's pharmacy. Changeable copy, he said, isn't really fundamental to a business's success and creates too many distractions.

Burns said businesses like Carolina Roadhouse, which doesn't have changeable copy signs, are doing no worse than Denny's, which does.

"I would argue it has no significant impact," Burns said.

Councilman Wayne Gray, owner of The Spring House restaurants, admitted he doesn't know what good advertising specials on the changeable message signs actually does.

"I do it because everyone else does it," he said.

Mayor John Rhodes wanted to hear from a hotelier or other business owner to see how effective and important they think having these signs would be for their businesses.

"I don't want to get to the point where I need the biggest sign," Brittain told him. "I'd rather attract people with nice landscaping, an attractive building."

Brittain said he's worried that the signs would lead to price wars and cost chopping, as well as competition to have the biggest, flashiest sign.

"I don't think that's what we want to get into," he said.

Critics say they don't want to see back-to-back electronic signs, but the ordinance would allow them only on parcels of 5 acres or more, city manager Tom Leath said.

Ebbie Phillips, owner of Tyson Sign Company, said he didn't see a need to worry about a flood of electronic signs because they are more expensive than non-electronic signs, and not every business would need or want one.

"To paint the whole city with the same brush, not to allow anyone to have them, is not right," he said. "We're not the enemy. We all have the best interest of Myrtle Beach in mind. ... Signs aren't going to get bigger, or taller. We're talking about allowing one portion of the signs to be replaced by electronics."

The Myrtle Beach Planning Commission studied the signs issue for nearly a year before making a recommendation to the city in recent weeks. Commissioners advocated a restrictive ordinance, only allowing messages to change once a day.

Some commissioners attended Tuesday's council workshop to give their individual opinions.

Planning Commissioner Derek Mozingo agreed that signs like those Las Vegas is famous for are "exciting," but they are also more expensive than anyone here could afford and they are in an urban corridor, not residential areas.

"We've given our lives trying to make this place better," Mozingo said. "We're not Charleston. ... We're not Hilton Head. ... But we have our own special identity. We don't have to be a tacky touristy town. We have a responsibility to our visitors and our residents. We have enough visual distractions already. ... I just beg that you don't go down this road."

Gray pointed to North Myrtle Beach, where electronic signs are allowed, and said there isn't a sign war going on there, and that city has allowed the signs for about 10 years.

"Not everyone has good intentions. Not everyone has good taste," Mozingo said to Gray. "There are people in town who will abuse this. You and I both know that."

Former appearance board member Birgit Darby called the ordinance ridiculous and said it would allow people to "go bananas." She said many cities are rescinding their electronic sign laws because they have found a driver-safety issue, and said she would hate to think she wasted 10 years of her life on the board trying to clean up the city's visual clutter, only to have the work undone.

Mozingo said many people on the planning commission would prefer changeable copy, with its often missing letters and misspelled words, would go away all together.

In almost a year of working up its research and resolution for the city, the board said that because changeable messages are already allowed, it just wanted to see them cleaned up and give people the option of changing the signs without going out in the rain.

But Stradinger and Burns, like many others, simply do not want to see Myrtle Beach lit up by thousands of watts of electronic signage.

"The sign industry has to be regulated, just like the development industry needs to be regulated," he said.

"This is a resort. We can't turn it into a helter skelter, Coney-Island type place. People come here for the beach, the marshes, not to see our advertising. ... Please, with every bit of humility and passion I have, please don't turn Myrtle Beach into a highway arcade."