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.