Hernando billboard argument continues

Published 11:48 pm Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It’s stood on the east side of Byhalia Road near Interstate 55 since the ’60s, draped in kudzu and in disrepair since the ’80s.

BNow that dentist Bob Seymour wants to refurbish the billboard that once proudly told motorists to stop off in Hernando, it is embroiled in controversy.

Turned down on first request in August 2007 by the city’s Planning Department and rejected by the Planning Commission twice on appeal, Seymour has appealed to the Board of Aldermen.

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After a recent 60-minute discussion that included several comments from three citizens and a representative from a homeowners association, aldermen delayed a decision until May 19.

Billboards in Hernando are only permitted on land zoned industrial, and the 5-acre tract where the sign stands is zoned office.

Administrators in the planning office ruled the billboard was a nonconforming use that had been discontinued since the sign had essentially been abandoned.

Seymour believes since the sign has stood since the ’60s and was there before Hernando enacted its zoning laws in 1983, it should be grandfathered and legal to use.

Hernando assistant planning director Shelly Johnstone said the Planning Commission determined the sign had been abandoned because it had not been used in more than 20 years and did not have working electrical service, and because the tax assessors office had it listed as vacant property since no taxes were being collected from its use.

“No rent or tax was ever paid on the sign because the previous owner donated the sign to the Chamber of Commerce to use as long as they wanted,” Seymour told alderman.

Seymour also said his original plan to develop the wooded hillside into a business park called for eight lots, but the Planning Commission was unhappy with the number of trees that would have to be removed.

In good faith, he redrew the plans to have just five lots. He said the plan saved many of the trees but cost him an additional $50,000 to develop.

Seymour insists that to make the office park feasible, he must have the revenue from both the billboard and a planned cellular tower.

He said he also plans to eliminate the kudzu and put extensive landscaping on the hillside and build a natural buffer to block the views of concerned neighbors.

“If it was of no benefit and a detriment to the city I wouldn’t even pursue it,” Seymour said. “I don’t expect (aldermen) to do this for me just so I can make some money. That’s why I’ve worked with Shelly and taken on the extra expense to alter my plan.”

Arlie Walters, vice president of the Grove Park Homeowners Association, said while the group originally opposed the project, it was now taking a neutral stance.

“We feel of the two plans, this is the lesser of two evils,” Walters said.

Alderman Gary Higdon, who represents the area, said he had received several calls asking him to vote against the project. He said no one called to express support for the project.

Higdon said citizens felt they were being pressured by Seymour.

“They don’t want that sign, but they feel if they don’t go with this plan now, they won’t get that hillside developed.

“If it was an active sign and was being changed and used, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion,” Higdon said “It would already be grandfathered in.”

Also at issue was what work could actually be done to the sign if it was grandfathered.

“If it can only be maintained and not expanded, we need to clarify what work can actually be done to the sign, or even if it can be lighted,” Miller said.

Miller proposed a decision be delayed so legal and planning issues could be further researched.