CHTC: Signs, Signs, Everywhere A Sign?

CHAPEL HILL- Last week the Chapel Hill Town Council approved changes to the town’scommercial sign ordinance, expanding the places where large signs can be erected and, in some cases, increasing sign heights.

The move re-ignited a debate over how to address the needs of local business owners while preserving Chapel Hill’s village-like charm.

Geoffrey Daniel Geist told the council he’s worried the proposed changes could have a major impact on the town’s appearance.

“What may appear to some as a relatively minor set of ordinances related to signage has many of us in the community concerned about the present and future implications of what our community will look like while driving, biking or simply driving down the road,” said Geist.

But Kristin Smith, speaking on behalf of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, said updating the town’s sign ordinance has been a high priority for many local business owners.

“To grow the tax base and improve the employment opportunities for citizens in this area, you have to make concessions to be attractive to business owners,” Smith said, quoting from a recent member survey. “Learn from neighboring cities and what’s working for their communities.”

In 2011 the council approved an ordinance change to allow large commercial centers such as Southern Village, Eastgate and University Mall to erect ground signs.

Under the new rules, commercial ground signs are now also permitted at smaller retail locations with at least four shops, such as Glen Lennox, The Galleria on Elliot Road, and Midtown Market on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Along roadways marked 45 mph, sign heights can now reach 17 feet, slightly higher than what’s allowed in neighboring municipalities. This concerned some on the council, including Laurin Easthom.

“I don’t see any reason why we have to go higher than Durham and Raleigh on our signs,” said Easthom. “While there may not be many times when that particular sign height is an issue, I just worry about implications unforeseen.”

The council unanimously approved the expansion of ground signs to smaller commercial centers, as well as a plan to allow more folding sandwich board advertising.

The vote on sign heights was split 6-3, with Matt Czajkowski, Laurin Easthom and Jim Ward opposed.

The council will review the sign ordinance within a year’s time.

Twas the Local Season? And a 2020 update

     If you’re among the many who believe Christmas decorations need to come down by in a timely fashion, I hope you will permit me this late-January look back at this Christmas past.

     This edition of $avvy $pender got underway in mid-December at a Christmas party when a fellow guest mentioned she and her friends “made a pact to shop only locally this year.”  Not too long after that I was in Kitchenworks and I overheard a customer say she knew she could get her new bundt pan at Walmart but preferred to spend her money locally.  

     I hadn’t forgotten either of those comments when I was in Flyleaf Books mid-January and the staffer helping me mentioned she had many customers declare much the same during the shopping season.  The third time being the charm and all that, I asked Flyleaf employee (and the eye behind the jewelry and other accessories now available there) Sally Stollmack to tell me more.

     Sally shared several anecdotes of holiday shoppers telling her they planned to go out of their way to buy local this year.  And she says it started as early as Black Friday. 

     Flyleaf Owner and General Manager Jamie Fiocco wrote that Flyleaf’s December sales were up 39% over the year before.  She sent the following as to reasons why:  “I think [the increase] was so dramatic for a couple of reasons: it was our second full holiday season so we have grown our customer base and inventory and also we picked up even more customers from the Borders closing in Chapel Hill this
Fall. And to add to what Sally said; Yes, I do feel folks in Chapel Hill really DO get the buy local message, and we are very appreciative of that

     Cameron’s owner Bridget Pemberton-Smith told me she has seen that sentiment growing and even had a customer mention she’d rather spend a bit more to keep the money local.  But she also is aware that many people will go in search of something cheaper.  

     And Aaron Nelson,  President and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce emailed that “ I have not had any retailer tell me that they thought that this shopping season felt like folks were making an extra effort to buy local. I know several folks who make a personal pledge to buy all of their holiday gifts locally.”

     Where we shop does matter to our local economy.  Chapel Hill Economic Development Officer Dwight Bassett pointed me to a 2011 study from the Maine Center for Economic Policy that found approximately $58 for every $100 spent at a locally owned business contributes to the local economy compared with $33 out of every $100 spent at national chains

     So about now I’m guessing all of you scientifically-minded folks have thought about how  my research is less than reliable given that I spoke with people in stores that are local and therefore wouldn’t hear the other side of the story.  I also did not stand outside Southpoint Mall asking people their zip codes.  So I realize that shared above is a collection of anecdotes more than anything else but I’m wondering if it’s a trend.  

     Please comment below if you did or didn’t shop locally this past December and tell us why. Or write to me at

Update on a previous column:  I last wrote about my evolution into a believer in the 2020 Comprehensive Plan process.  Further kudos to the leaders for the following outreach programs, designed to include more voices:  This past weekend the 2020 team met with more than 100 immigrants from Burma. Town Outreach Coordinator Faith Thompson led the session an interpreter.  The input from that session will be shared at the next 2020 meeting on Feb. 23.  

Another outreach program gets underway this Thursday and is designed to involve more young adults in the process.  The town has named them “Tavern Talks” so I’ll let you guess where they will meet!  Or, click here for specifics.