Starkville sign ordinance stirs up controversy among local businesses, city officials

Strange Brew's Highway 12 location sign often displays witty messages and sarcasm.

“The new sign ordinance would require us to kill our beloved Strange Brew sign. It’s an important part of our Strange Brew history, and I hope it’s been an important part of our local community by making people laugh and brighten days. How can we #SaveTheBrewSign?” Strange Brew Coffeehouse tweeted at Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill last Tuesday afternoon.

According to a 2011 addition of the Starkville, Mississippi, Code of Ordinance regulations, pole signs, like Strange Brew’s Highway 12 location, will have a stricter set of guidelines to improve the look of signs across town. Section A of Article IX-Signage states that the goal of the law is for all signs in the city to have a more cohesive and appealing look and provide less visual clutter along the roads that could impair drivers’ visibility.

The ordinance will go into effect May 5, 2022, giving businesses a final few months to rebuild their signs. Initially, it was supposed to go into effect in 2021, but the Board of Aldermen lengthened the timeline due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last Tuesday, Strange Brew sent out multiple tweets and social media posts directed at Mayor Spruill to reconsider the ordinance. Later that afternoon, the coffee shop posted an official statement to its social media accounts that asked if the sign could be granted status as a piece of history and remain the same since the owners have used the message board for many momentous occasions over the years.

“My hopes are that Mayor Spruill and the aldermen of Starkville can help us come up with a way to preserve something that makes Starkville different and special,” the owners wrote. 

The Reflector attempted to contact Strange Brew but did not receive a reply by publication time.

In an interview with the Reflector, Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill said the changes would not affect the message on Strange Brew’s sign but said the owners just need to lower the sign’s height to be eight feet tall. Additionally, it must have a monument base made from brick or similar materials and be at least five feet apart from any nearby road.

“The words on the sign itself can stay the same, but it must be lowered,” Spruill said.

Alderwoman Sandra Sistrunk of Ward 2 agreed with Spruill and said the coffee shop has flexibility with the new guidelines.

“I think that (Strange Brew) can accomplish everything that they are known for that sign in a way that is conforming with our sign ordinance,” Sistrunk said.

Tuesday, Mayor Spruill acknowledged Strange Brew in multiple tweets, defending the ordinance, which she did not write.

“There are old and unattractive signs all over town that need to be upgraded, and we can’t and won’t discriminate,” Spruill tweeted.

Dozens of people on Twitter sided with Strange Brew and asked if the mayor could make an exception for the coffee shop.

“As a former Alderwoman for the (City of Starkville), I can say that this is a sign that is famous. I would attend a conference, and people would tell me about the (Strange Brew) sign,” Lisa Wynn tweeted.

However, Mayor Spruill said exceptions would probably not be allowed for the rule.

“Strange Brew may ask for an exemption or to be grandfathered in, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll get it,” Spruill said to the Reflector.

Additionally, Strange Brew tweeted that the city had not previously warned the coffee shop of the upcoming sign changes. However, Spruill said that the 72 businesses affected by the ordinance were alerted of the upcoming due date via an official letter and an email from the mayor’s office in advance, allowing the businesses plenty of time to fix their signs.

Mayor Spruill owns Spruill Property Management in Starkville, which has a sign that will also need to be improved to fit the ordinance’s requests. Spruill said she is happy to comply with the law and will have her sign fixed before the May deadline.

Alderman Ben Carver, representing Ward 1, said he voted against the ordinance in 2011 and is still not in favor of it. 

“I think it’s just a cumbersome overreach of government,” Carver said.

Accordingly, the alderman plans to motion a recall vote at the Oct. 18 board meeting. He said he hopes the new board members will agree with him to cancel the ordinance. 

“Something that happened 11 years ago shouldn’t dictate the day now,” Carver said.

Alderwoman Sistrunk voted in favor of the sign ordinance in 2011. She said if Carver holds a recall motion, her vote will likely remain the same. The alderwoman said she is a fan of Strange Brew but still believes all businesses should follow the new law.

“When we passed the ordinance, we were careful that we were treating everybody consistently,” Sistrunk said.

Sistrunk said the 2011 ordinance was just one of many aimed to improve the city’s visual look as it transforms into a more urban area. The strict eight-feet-tall sign guideline furthers those goals.

“I don’t think (the board’s) original idea was to give a height variance because our original idea was to reduce the visual clutter of those pole signs,” Sistrunk said.

Strange Brew remains adamant about keeping its sign as is. However, the city will enforce a maximum daily penalty for establishments that are non-compliant with the order. Spruill said she hopes the city will not have to penalize the businesses because the ordinance ultimately benefits the town’s appearance.

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