Every day while driving around Dunwoody’s streets, Joe Hirsch takes dozens of pictures of signs he says are posted illegally and sends them to city officials. He demands the signs be removed and he wants the offenders to be held accountable.
Hirsch, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council in 2017, is well-known by residents and those at City Hall for his aggressive pursuit of locating and reporting illegal signs, racking up dozens and dozens of official complaints a year. He said his years-long fight with city officials over illegal signs is more than a passion, however. It’s a symbol.
“The signs exemplify how poorly our city government is run,” he said.
“Signs are not the biggest problem in our city and don’t hurt people, and I realize my passion is perhaps more symbolic than tangible,” he added. “I just view it as right-in-your-face example of how the city government is not working properly.”
But the City Council is now ready to do battle with Hirsch and a handful of other residents who continually complain about illegal signs. At the council’s May 6 meeting, members unanimously voted to hire a consultant to rewrite the entire sign code, starting from scratch.
The current sign ordinance includes everything from definitions of different kinds of signs to such details as prohibiting window signs from covering more than 30 percent of the window frame and restricting address numerals to no taller than 4 inches in residential districts and 10 inches in business districts.
Councilmember Lynn Deutsch, who served on the city’s first Planning Commission after incorporation and worked on writing the original sign ordinance, said the test of a city government is not found in the clarity of its sign ordinance as Hirsch claims. But realizing when things are not working and taking time to start over shows a city’s maturity, she said.
When Hirsch complained this year about high school graduate signs that have been posted for many years in various city neighborhoods to honor seniors soon receiving their diplomas as now being illegal, Deutsch said something drastic needed to be done.
“That’s when I knew we had totally lost our way,” she said.
Hirsch complained to the city and said the traditional signs needed to be permitted due to a change in the sign ordinance made last year about permitting signs of certain sizes. Deutsch acknowledged he was correct, calling the mishap an “unintended consequence.”
“I knew we needed to step back, figure out our goals and objectives, and make it as simple as possible so residents and businesses alike can understand the code,” Deutsch said.
Through the years, the council has made “nips and tucks” that have made the entire process of putting up a sign for legitimate businesses confusing and complicated, Deutsch said.
That resulting confusion of how, when, why and where someone can put up a sign is likely doing more harm to the city than good because it turns residents into the “sign police,” she added.
“It’s crazy-making, this stuff is so complicated,” Deutsch said. “I think we can fix this.”
A complete rewrite should clear up confusion for residents and businesses alike, she said. How much the consultant will cost is unknown at this time and will be part of approving next year’s budget, according to Community Development Director Richard McLeod.
Deutsch said there are many factors to consider when writing a sign ordinance, including the U.S. Constitution and free speech rights. How a community wants to regulate its aesthetic also plays a powerful role.
Each year, the city’s code enforcement officers regularly pull more than 1,000 illegal signs from the right-of-way. Oftentimes, the signs are returned the next day or even hours later. The signs posted on utility poles are made at night by anonymous people representing anonymous companies and catching an offender to fine them and stop them from posting illegal signs is nearly impossible.
“We have a well-rounded code enforcement program. There is a lot of sign pollution that goes up overnight and is done anonymously, so there is no way to trace it. It’s an ongoing battle,” Deutsch said.
Hirsch’s own battle with the city over signs is not just based on his stated claim to clean up government. It’s also based on a nearly decade-old grudge he has against the city.
In 2010, Hirsch noticed reserved parking signs for teachers and construction workers doing renovations posted around Dunwoody High School, within sight of his Womack Drive home. He complained to city officials, saying they were illegal because the sign ordinance did not address reserved signs. He called the signs “pollution” and “clutter.”
City officials disagreed and said the reserved signs were allowed. Hirsch then made his own sign that stated, “Reserved for Joe Hirsch Only.” His sign was immediately removed.
“The police chief stood up in public and said he was not going to enforce the sign code, the public works director said in public he was not going to enforce the sign code … to spite me,” Hirsch said. “So, I said I could play that game, too.
“People point to me as being the obnoxious one about this, but let’s not forget the city started it,” he said.