By Patrick Fox
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Some 50 new billboards sit ready to take up residence in four north Fulton County cities that just lost a court battle to keep them out.
While the cities are barred from openly opposing the signs, most are looking for ways to gain as much control as possible over their placement. One sign company owner says any resistance skirts the state Supreme Court's decision.
Johns Creek, Milton and Sandy Springs are wrestling with a recent ruling from the high court precluding them from regulating billboards that companies had applied for before the cities incorporated several years ago, before they drew up their own sign ordinances. Alpharetta must also recognize applications for the signs in an area it annexed from Fulton in 2004.
Johns Creek, which has 31 billboard applications pending, is drafting an ordinance that could essentially freeze a property's use once a billboard is erected, making it nearly impossible for the landowner to make future alterations.
The proposal would expand the requirement for a "fall zone" to include all property within Johns Creek. A fall zone is a safety clearance, usually 85 feet, surrounding a structure to provide enough room in case of collapse.
The court ruling allows businesses to contract for a billboard on their property. But under the Johns Creek proposal, if a structure is within the fall zone of the billboard, that business would not be permitted to expand, renovate or apply for a zoning variance because it is in violation of the city ordinance.
"Anything already built is grandfathered," Johns Creek City Attorney William Riley said. "They have a right to have what they have in there now, but they don't have a right to replacement."
The city has another legal impediment to billboards. Its sign ordinance limits commercial properties to one free-standing monument sign per frontage area. If the owner allows a billboard, he or she cannot replace an existing monument sign if it falls into disrepair, Riley said.
Morgan Hudgens, owner of KH Outdoor, a sign company, said he's not surprised by the city's move.
"The cities are doing everything in their power to try to impede the ruling of the court," he said. "They're grasping at straws. They continue to do this, and I think the court's not going to look too kindly on this."
Other cities are studying their options.
Sandy Springs, with 17 potential billboard sites, is studying county zoning ordinances that were in effect at the time of the applications, City Attorney Wendell Willard said. It is checking what limitations may have been in place for setback requirements or nonconforming zonings that could be applicable, he said.
Alpharetta has four sites subject to billboard placement, but City Attorney Sam Thomas expects fewer may be constructed. The city will comply with the Supreme Court decision while it also studies old county zoning laws, he said.
"Based on our review so far, we may be able to avoid one or more signs and not run afoul of the court’s decision," he said.
The city will soon meet with the sign companies' lawyers to try to resolve the matter, he said.
Nowhere would the signs be more apparent than in Milton, where passions run high for protecting country settings.
Resident Laura Bentley said the city has worked hard to preserve its hometown feel.
"Billboards are not consistent with Milton's vision and will not enhance the lives of the people that live here," she said.
The city has 10 billboard applications pending.
"My expectation is that they may propose a narrowed list of billboards -- a lesser number than was actually applied for -- so long as they have an agreement with the city of no further legal challenges," City Attorney Ken Jarrard said.
The only north Fulton city not affected by the court ruling is Roswell, which has won and lost its share of scrapes with sign companies and has accumulated a city code that is virtually billboard-proof.
The city has a law barring off-premises signs -- those advertising businesses not located at the site. It also has ordinances limiting the size and height of signs to something much less than a billboard.
"We stop them," Roswell Mayor Jere Wood said, "we don't just dissuade them."