Sign, sign, everywhere a sign: Citizen addresses council concerning new digital billboard

The Rainsville City Council heard from resident Kayron Guffey during Tuesday night's meeting voicing her concerns over the newly erected digital billboard sign along Main Street on Highway 35.

“I don’t have a problem with billboards but I have a problem with that billboard in the center of our town,” said Guffey. “It’s about the beautification of our town and it’s an eyesore.”

The New South Media Group LLC is a Georgia corporation that owns and leases signs with other affiliated firms including New South Outdoor LLC, an Alabama corporation that manages sales, owner of the newly erected billboard in front of the Tom Bevill Enrichment Center.

A displeased Guffey inquired why the citizens of Rainsville were not informed about the “eyesore” coming to town until they saw the hole being dug.

“I would also like to know why we didn’t know as a town that this company was going to sue our town,” she said. “There’s a lot of citizens in town upset about this and there’s a lot of citizens behind you guys.”

Guffey said throughout her research of New South Media Group, it and its affiliated firms have engaged in lawsuits against municipalities in Alabama, Florida and surrounding states.

She went on to say the City of Huntsville was one of the cities in a federal lawsuit with the company over their sign ordinance and the denial of applications for New South Outdoor billboard signs.

Per the Huntsville area news sources, the federal lawsuit urges the city is illegally restricting signs based on their content, violating free speech laws.

“I want to know if our old ordinance restricted the content of what could be on the billboard,” said Guffey.

City Attorney Nikki Phillips said the old ordinance, before its update on March 15, 2021, had been in place for several years and was found unconstitutional by an attorney who specializes in those types of legal matters.

“The [company] goes around to different locations and wants to put up a billboard. If denied, they look at your ordinance and if they think it’s not constitutional they will challenge it,” she said.

Phillips said, as recommended by the Alabama League of Municipalities, the city sought out legal counsel from a specialized attorney in Birmingham who said something had to be done to fix it immediately, a revised constitutional Ordinance No. 3-15-2021 was drafted, presented at a council meeting and passed in March.

“So we had a loophole in that [old ordinance] that someone 10 years ago wrote and left something out that left us not being able to do what we needed to do in our town,” Guffey said.

Phillips said because constitutional law is ever evolving, the ordinance probably served its purpose at the time it was passed but since then cases have come along that have changed the laws regarding sign content.

Mayor Rodger Lingerfelt said the council made their decision based on the facts provided by their legal counsel.

“We take the oath of office to do what’s best for this city, not what’s best for an individual,” said Councilman Rickey Byrum. “What really matters is we are not above the law, so we have to follow the law and that’s exactly what we did. We followed their instructions down to a T and it sounded crazy for us to spend $250,000 and lose.”

He said they were not elected to spend that amount of money to lose a case and it wasn’t in the best interest for the taxpayers.

In response to Guffey’s inquiry about the town not being informed, Councilman Derek Rosson said the company came in knowing how to play the system and had funds to do so.

He said the city had played defense since October of 2020 with the company aiming to place five billboards in Rainsville.

“Now take that into consideration,” he said. “We couldn’t say a whole lot because of litigation and we were advised by our attorney not to say anything.”

Rosson said as the process continued it came down to either spending taxpayers money and have the company win in addition to having them place five in the city or go on the offense and try to negotiate to bring the number of billboards down.

“As for Huntsville, it’s a much bigger city and they probably have a lot more money than Rainsville Alabama to fight,” he said.

Addressing Councilman Bejah Taheri, Guffey asked if the state right of way regulations allow for a billboard to be placed that close, to which Taheri said it only has to be five feet from the road and that sign is more than that.

“Another thing that bothers me is there was somebody local that wanted to put up a billboard and they weren’t allowed, at least our money would have stayed locally,” said Guffey.

Regarding the location of the new billboard, Lingerfelt said the council did not choose the location or had anything to do with where it was placed.

Rosson described the situation as a “double edge sword,” saying it wasn’t something anyone in the council wanted or liked.

As reported by the New South Outdoor LLC, they currently have billboards in 21 areas of Alabama (apart from other states) including the following nearby locations of Albertville (two), Scottsboro (10), Huntsville (8) and Fort Payne (2).

The new Rainsville sign Ordinance 3-15-2021 is available at www.rainsvillealabama.com.

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