VALDOSTA -- Travelers coming through Valdosta on Interstate 75 will get a better chance to see what Valdosta has to offer -- in the form of a variable message board.

Variable message boards, a source of interest for City Councilman J.R. Sessions, are programmable signs that provide changing information. Before March 11, the Council meeting in which the signs were approved, variable message boards were not permitted inside the city, except for governmental properties and universities.

The amendment process began after Sessions received calls from companies interested in putting up signs.

"I knew that several people were interested in having a variable message board with their signs, and I wanted to see what I could do to help them," Sessions said. "I thought it was a good idea."

Sessions owns a sign company, but a variable message board amendment would not affect his business because he does not deal with moving signs.

The Regional Development Center staff then created a text amendment. City Council first heard the proposed amendment in December, but postponed it several times until the Council decided to vote on it March 11.

According to City Manager Larry Hanson, some of the reasons why the text amendment was delayed was because sign issues can be problematic. "Signs are always difficult because some people enjoy having the signs. Others see them as visual clutter," he said.

Hanson said the variable message boards would be an attractive way to advertise and were often more visually pleasing than signs that looked like billboards.

"Having message boards is a win-win situation," Hanson said. "It rids the community of some of the nonconforming signs (signs, some of which are billboard-like, that were grandfathered in when the council passed an ordinance requiring signs to be a certain height and width) and gives businesses a choice for their sign."

Variable message boards are allowed in Commercial Highway and Commercial-Community designated zoning only and only in conjunction with a free standing sign. Most C-H and C-C zoning areas are near the I-75 corridor. No signs are allowed downtown or in residential zoning areas. The size of the board will be included in the total allowable size of the free standing sign and will meet three specific requirements:

1. The message can change no more than 12 times per minute.

2. Messages are not allowed to be illuminated by blinking, intermittent or flashing lights.

3. Only white lights are allowed.

The Valdosta-Lowndes County Conference Center and Tourism Authority will put up its own variable message board on both the high-rise sign overlooking I-75 and its entrance sign on Norman Drive. Because the Authority is considered a governmental organization, it is exempt from the ordinance, but will be putting its sign up shortly.

"This is a great opportunity to add value to the groups here," Marty Brown, executive director of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Conference Center, said. "Many, many people are going to be able to see this sign, giving a bigger chance for people to stop by and visit our events."

Some businesses are also seeing good things happen with their signs, including the Hampton Inn and Suites off Meeting Place, which is actually in a county island. According to Harish Alimchandani, manager, the sign at the Hampton Inn has been up for two weeks.

"It is a little too early to tell if it has improved our business because we are still so new," Alimchandani said. "But it is definitely a positive influence on businesses because it drives people to come into Valdosta and check us out."

Only one variable message board is allowed per property, provided it represents at least 10 percent, but no more than 25 percent, of the maximum sign allowed in the zoning classification. Permits for variable message boards will not be granted for property currently having illegal, non-conforming signs until or unless those signs are removed or replaced.

To contact reporter Michelle Taylor, please call 229-244-3400, ext. 245.

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