By Maggie Lee

After 13 months of drafts and rewrites, Dunwoody City Council has approved a sign ordinance.

Mayor Ken Wright hammered his gavel to mark unanimous council approval for the new law, which changes the rules for the sorts of signs that can mark businesses, churches and neighborhoods in the future.

Existing signs will be “grandfathered,” meaning they can continue in place until their owners decide to replace them.

“The sign ordinance is a job you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy,” Wright said. “I think we’ll dream about it a long time.”

The ordinance offers 30 pages of rules, so one council member expects the council will amend it again.

“I suspect, over time, we’re going to find that we’re too restrictive,” City Councilman Robert Wittenstein said just before the council approved the new rules.

A couple of things might eventually come up for reconsideration, Wittenstein said. The grandfather clause might prove tough on new business. If existing shops can keep their bright lights, subdued signs could be a comparative disadvantage for new retailers.

Also, old signs must be replaced with something that meets the new requirements if a business decides to change its sign for any reason, including wear and tear. There is an exception: non-compliant signs destroyed by something outside of their control, like a tornado, can be replaced with noncompliant duplicates.

Dunwoody’s commercial streets are lined with signs that won’t fit the new requirements.

The new law eliminates the familiar big, plastic, rectangular signs with lights on the inside. The new rules require that owners shine spotlights on their signs or light the letters from behind to make a silhouetted sign.

Roof signs are out, too, unless the building is more than three stories and 50-feet tall. For the city, that means anything that perches on the slope of a roof, including lighted letters. Balloons are restricted to people selling apartments or houses.

Business signs must be affixed to the ground. Only “monument –type” signs fit the new rules.

All visible neon is out, as are electric moving signs like LEDs or LCDs. The only exception is gas stations with digital price signs.

Banners at the front of subdivisions will be 24 square feet.

So-called standard informational signs – such as temporary realty signs in yards or election signs – are going to be allowed as long as they don’t block rights-of-way or a driver’s vision. In election years, from the date of candidate qualification to the very end of vote counting, residents may put out as many election signs as they wish.

Institutions like churches and schools will be allowed 12 different temporary signs a year, at 30 days for each sign. That’s a cut from 15 signs.

“If there are that many messages that need to be conveyed by our city’s institutions,” reads an opinion from the city planner’s office, “perhaps a more permanent solution could be undertaken, like a permanent, changeable message board sign.”

Further, that number of temporary signs risks opening the whole ordinance to charges of sign proliferation, according to consulting attorney Laurel Henderson.

But if a car is a rolling billboard, plastered all over with ads for a company, it must park away from public view.

If the new rules sound restrictive, Wittenstein said, residents might want to remember that the council at one point was thinking of a rule regarding homeowners decorating with white lights, as opposed to colored lights, during the holidays.

And to avoid the risk of legal trouble with the new law, council will deal with banners on poles and portable signs in another ordinance.