Tuesday, June 05, 2012

TOP STORY >> Church signs come down, which upsets some clergy

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher hopes to sooth angry feelings arising from a state Highway Department decision declaring church signs along Hwy. 67/167 illegal by putting up a common sign in Dupree Park.

Fletcher was accused in a letter to the editor last week of “of attacking the Ministerial Alliance” in his attempt to get sign along the highway removed.

At least one Jacksonville church is upset over the issue. Others expressed disappointment, but not with the city.

Jerry Reichenbach, a parishioner at St. Jude Catholic Church at 2403McArthur Drive, wrote to The Leader last week, “Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher’s move to ban church information signs on Hwy. 67/167 may be the undoing of his mayorship…What were you thinking? Attacking the ministerial alliance may not have been in your best interest.”

He didn’t return a call from The Leader by press time.

But a letter asking St. Jude, 11 other churches and real estate company to take down their signs isn’t from the city. Jeff Ingram, the head of beautification at the state Highway Department’s environmental division, signed that notice.

As of Tuesday morning, 1o of those signs had not been removed.

One of the churches, Hope Lutheran Church and School, has a billboard not far from where its smaller sign is.

The Highway Department says church signs that are eight square feet or smaller are allowed because they are exempt from the federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965. But the signs along Hwy. 67/167 are larger than that.

The department told the churches that if the larger signs are not taken down or altered, then the state could lose up to 10 percent of its annual share of federal highway construction money, which amounts to millions of dollars.

The department’s letter to the churches, which was sent on May 7, sets a deadline of 60 days for the removal or a reduction in the size of the signs.

How is the mayor involved?

The city formed a signs and billboard committee at the beginning of the year in response to people asking about putting up billboards and complaints about some signs being unattractive or distracting to traffic.

That panel’s members have discussed in their meetings the signs in the highway right of way, as well as signs throughout Jacksonville located in the city’s right of way, people standing with handheld signs in the city’s right of way, subdivision signs, lots for sale signs, billboards, directional signs and several other kinds of advertisements.

One of his focuses, Fletcher explained, has been to clean up the city and dealing with signs, especially those that are in disrepair or contribute to unappealing clutter, is one step toward achieving that goal. The mayor said he’s heard a lot of positive feedback about those efforts.

Fletcher signed a letter city engineer Jay Whisker sent on March 12 to Joe Sartini, an engineer with the state Highway Department. The letter asked whether the signs discussed at the committee’s first meeting on Feb. 28 were legal and pictures of them were attached.

According to the minutes for the February meeting, the Highway Department had recently requested that the city remove its sign in the area.

The mayor suggested having the church signs along Hwy. 67/167 combined into one common sign to be located at Dupree Park, where it would be visible from the freeway thanks to a clear cutting effort by the Parks and Recreation Department.

Reichenbach with St. Jude wrote to The Leader, “The signs for the most part have been in that location for over 30 years by the churches of Jacksonville. Maybe the signs did not meet the (highway department) guidelines, but if they ignored the rules for this long, what is the real reason for the action? There were better ways to handle this. Why not invite the pas-tors and discuss the city’s reasons for its objection to the signs?”

Fletcher said, “I’ve had one person say, ‘Well, they’ve been here for all these years. Why are we just now addressing them?’ If you’re going 60 miles per hour in a 40-mile zone and do it for five years and you don’t get caught, then one day you get caught, were you not speeding then?”

The mayor said he didn’t read Reichenbach’s letter to the editor, but he is trying to get an audience with church leaders to discuss legal options for their signage and the city’s goals concerning all signs in Jacksonville.

Fletcher said, “The shock and frustration of some of the churches I understand very seriously. I think there are some places where we could come together to accomplish both of our goals. I need those churches to come to me.

“I’m not declaring war on anybody. I’m just wanting to clean the town up. We’ve got to sell this city. Perception is what we’ve got to change.”

The mayor said he can’t make everyone happy, but “I believe that this is a solvable situation.

“I’m a born-again believer. I want to be more of a spiritual leader than a political leader because I believe that’s where most of our problems are. So, the last thing I aim is to do is anything to hurt the churches that I think might hold more answers to our problems more than the government institutions.”

Fletcher said, “I have no personal agenda. My agenda is Jacksonville. I believe every decision I make is the same decision that most citizens in this city, if they were sitting at this desk with the same information, would make. We’re all in this together.”

At least two church leaders expressed understanding.

Pastor Royce Lowe of First Assembly of God said he hasn’t moved the church’s $2,000 sign yet.

“My plans are to comply. I don’t want to muddy the water. This is not the city doing it. It’s the Highway Department. We’ll try to put it somewhere else,” he said.

That alternate location could be off Military Road. The mayor said that was fine if the property it’s on isn’t in the city limits.

Lowe said many members of the church at 221 N. Elm St. live on Military Road and a lot of his membership comes from the traffic on that road.

He has been asked to move two signs near the freeway. They have been there four years.

But, Lowe said, “We did have a sign (facing) both directions that was there 30 years.”

The pastor agreed with the mayor that some of the signs aren’t in the best of shape, including his.

“Flooding got to it,” Lowe said. But he plans to clean up the sign, which features a picture of the church.

The pastor also said the mayor didn’t know the highway department had sent a letter to the churches until he gave Fletcher a copy of that letter to First Assembly.

Another preacher, Kevin Leffingwell of the Christian Church of Jacksonville, said, “We’re just going to take it down. As silly as it may seem, those are rules. We don’t have a leg to stand on. It’s just one of those things.”

He also said his sign is “weathered.”