Kingsport planners crafting new guidelines for electronic signs

Matthew Lane • May 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Kingsport planners are taking a look at the law governing electronic signs within the city and are expected to come back later this year with clear guidelines for their construction and use.

Electronic signs are allowed in three zoning districts in the Model City — BC (Business Conference Center District), B-4P (Planned Business District) and TA (Tourist Accommodation).

The signs must be approved by the Kingsport Regional Planning Commission and have a maximum height of 35 feet above the roadway with a minimum height of 12 feet. Only one such sign is allowed per development.

The signs are also allowed in the B3 (General Business District) zone as a special exception, but it must be approved by the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

Kingsport Planner Karen Combs said the planning department is “getting hammered” with requests for electronic signs in B3 zones.

“In the last two years, I’ve had about one a month requesting an exception in B3,” Combs said. “With the technology and what we’re calling the reader board signs or electronic message boards, the technology has just brought the price down tremendously, and everybody’s wanting one because everyone can afford one now.”

Because of this, Combs said the BZA asked city planners to look at the ordinance and come up with guidelines to allow the signs within B3 zones without having to come before the BZA for a special exception each time.

“The BZA looked at it from a safety issue. If (the BZA) allows the sign, then they allow it on two caveats — it doesn’t scroll, flash or is distractive, and the words have to come in and out as a whole. Second, the message doesn’t change no less than every 30 seconds. That is the standard they have set.”

Combs looked into the issue, contacted other cities about electronic signs, and brought similar guidelines to the Planning Commission for review earlier this month.

Combs recommended the sign be restricted to text only with no pictures or animation, the text will not scroll or flash, and the message will not change any faster than every 30 seconds. As the law reads now, Kingsport has no guidelines on how big the sign can be or whether it can flash or scroll.

“I’m now doing research on what other cities are doing, but there are no standards anywhere, and the reason being they haven’t been out long enough for the studies,” Combs said. “You hear that if they flash, they could set off somebody who has epilepsy. That’s not been proven one way or the other. There are no studies to go by on timing, on brightness, on all sorts of things.”

The type of electronic sign Combs said she likes to see is one like Diamond Exchange or TriSummit Bank has erected.

“Those are very well done, tasteful. They look great. That’s what I’m shooting for,” Combs said. “I don’t want one that looks like a big TV screen.”

And Kingsport is not alone on this issue. Shari Brown, director of community development and planning in Bristol, Va., said the city is planning to review its entire sign ordinance next month. Brown said Bristol permits electronic signs in the city only if they display the time and temperature.

“That is it. Any other electronic messaging is prohibited,” Brown said, adding that more and more businesses have requested using electronic signs. “You can try for a special exception, but we had (Walgreens) ask for it, and they were turned down. They came back six months later and made the same request, and they were turned down a second time.”

Brown said she thinks allowing electronic signs in the city is worth considering.

“I’m not in favor of the truly animated ones, because I think those are distracting. Some of the others I could see some value in them,” she said.

Kingsport’s Planning Commission wants Combs to look at the whole ordinance for all four zones. Combs said she expects to bring a draft ordinance with the revisions to the Planning Commission within the next two months, keeping the recommendations previously mentioned about the text, though the time interval may change from 30 seconds to five to seven.

“The problem that’s going to happen is right now you put one up and they grab attention. If you put them up all the way down Stone Drive, they’re not going to be any more effective than a regular sign,” Combs said. “We’re not trying to give one business owner an edge. We’re trying to keep it to where it won’t be a distraction.”

Combs said she is asking for comments and advice from anyone in the business community interested in this topic or someone with experience with electronic signs to contact the planning department at 229-9485.

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