Signs of tension: Critics, codes office say Chattanooga enforcement hit and miss

Signs of tension: Critics, codes office say Chattanooga enforcement hit and miss

June 22nd, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

A mural depicting chickens adorns a brick wall outside of Niedlov's Breadworks along Main Street in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

A mural is on the side of the getBuilt Chattanooga CrossFit building on Main Street.

A mural is on the side of the...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

The debate over a flying doughnut mural has revealed holes in the city's sign ordinance.

Barry Snyder, who's part of a group working to revitalize the Brainerd corridor, can drive down Brainerd Road and count dozens of tacky, ugly signs that he says violate the city's code and detract from the area. Yet the one that got the city inspector's attention last week was a mural on the Southside that gave a dilapidated, run-down building a face-lift.

"I don't get it," Snyder said. "We're trying to clean up [Brainerd] and turn it into a beautiful space. And the murals are what make this town nice."

The Koch's Bakery mural isn't the first to come under fire as an advertisement instead of art. Brewhaus on the North Shore was ordered to remove the beer from a painting of a girl holding a cold one in each hand. The popular German-style bar and grill decided instead to paint over the picture.

Gary Hilbert is director of the city's land development office, which oversees code inspections. He said it's not up to his inspectors to decide whether a sign is pretty or not; they are required to follow the city's 59-page code on signs and advertisements.

"We have no control over colors, designs. I see signs all over the place that are the ugliest thing I've seen but if it complies with the city code there's no reason to say anything to that owner," he said.

But critics argue the ordinance has too much room for interpretation, leaving it up to inspectors to decide whether a painting without words but symbols of a business is an ad. And why cite this one when others like it are left alone? A few blocks away is a mural of chickens near Main Street Meats and one of a woman lifting weights in front of a city skyline, bearing the phrase "getBUILT," on the wall of the getBuilt fitness center nearby.

Why not focus on the signs causing blight?

"I think this is a silly argument to be having," said Greg Ross, who owns Estate of Confusion on Main Street. "If that's all they have to do, they have way too many inspectors."

Hilbert said the truth is just the opposite. His two inspectors have multiple jobs besides seeing whether a sign takes up more than 20 percent of a building. An inspector who sees a noncompliant sign tries to work with the business owner to get it up to code, he said.

There probably are signs all over the city that the inspectors miss, Hilbert said, but if someone reports a violation to 311 his inspectors will check it out, he said. Hilbert said the Koch's Bakery citation was not the result of a complaint.

City Council Chairman Chip Henderson said that realistically, the city can't enforce the pages of rules and permit requirements business owners are supposed to follow when putting up signs.

Henderson said the council has asked the city attorney's office to study the law to see whether it's too ambiguous and should address the mural debate.

Snyder said he and four neighborhood associations comprising hundreds of Brainerd residents have found their own solution. They are starting a campaign to bombard the city's 311 hot line with calls each time they see an ugly sign that appears to be too large.

"We're asking neighbors to burn up the lines at 311 and enforce the code," he said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at or 423-757-6659.

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