PIGEON FORGE — While city officials said Monday they were planning a moratorium on new signs due to a court decision involving the state, the city’s billboard ordinance was actually struck down due to a ruling in Sevier County Chancery Court involving a former commissioner.
The city is appealing the decision by Chancellor Telford Forgety, city attorney Nathan Rowell said, and the city commission appears set to approve a two-month moratorium that would run from March 8 to May 7.
Commissioners approved that measure on first reading Monday, but it must be approved on two separate readings before it can take effect.
A federal appellate court ruled in 2019 that Tennessee’s Billboard Act was unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court has since chosen not to take up that case.
In his ruling, Forgety indicated he would also have found that the city’s billboard regulations were unconstitutional.
However, he found another reason to strike down the billboard regulations: They weren’t approved by the planning commission when they were approved by the commission.
“This honorable court finds that the billboard ordinance is clearly tantamount to a zoning ordinance,” Forgety wrote in a written opinion issued Tuesday.
“The billboard ordinance should have been submitted to the planning commission and approved by the planning commission according to the procedures of the planning commission, and it was not.
“The court holds on these grounds the ordinance is invalid.”
Forgety first told attorneys about his decision in a zoom hearing Feb. 5, according to court records.
The Pigeon Forge Planning Commission is set to hold a workshop at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday to consider revisions to the city’s sign ordinances.
Forgety’s ruling only applies to the billboard ordinance, but city officials have indicated they will review the sign ordinances as a whole.
Both the chancellor’s ruling and the federal ruling about the state’s billboard law have found it’s unconstitutional to have sign ordinances that differentiate between on-premise advertising and off-premise advertising.
With the appellate court decision already on record, Forgety said he would have followed the same logic.
“The billboard ordinance clearly differentiates between on-premise and off-premise signs, and the differentiation is based upon the content of the signs,” he said.
That runs afoul of the First Amendment because it makes a differentiation based on content, he said.
The state approved a new law last year that redefined billboards as outdoor advertising devices that are operated by an entity that is compensated by a third party for messages placed on the device.
The city now appears set to decide how it will rewrite the ordinance to be content neutral.
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