Enforce local sign laws consistently, constantly

The town of Bluffton deserves encouragement in enforcing sign laws, not criticism.

The town has drawn ire because it has removed unpermitted "temporary" signs from street corners. But that's what the town should do.

At issue are the small signs that often point motorists to a nearby business. The signs look like those of a political candidate, or perhaps a real estate sign in front of a house for sale.

Bluffton is guilty of trying to be too nice during the down economy. For about three years, it has turned a blind eye toward the offending signs, thinking it could cut a break to struggling merchants.

Now it is removing signs, which it has a right and obligation to do. But it is trying to do it in a constructive way.

Town manager Anthony Barrett said the town warned businesses prior to removing the signs. He said a letter was sent in July indicating that the sign ordinance would be enforced. That was followed by a grace period, and then a period in which fines were not assessed.

For trying to help merchants, the town is being criticized for arbitrarily changing the rules on merchants who say they can prove that removal of the signs has taken a big bite out of business.

But the rules have not changed. Local municipalities and Beaufort County have long had tight sign restrictions on the books. Those laws were established in a very public way, and it simply does not work to plead ignorance to the law.

Sign restrictions are a core belief in this community, for good reason. Citizens have for decades wanted to avoid the proliferation of signs that make so many other communities ugly.

If today's merchants want to change that core belief, it must be done through the open, deliberative channels of making and changing law. But we would encourage the towns and county to stay the course, and fight off ugliness.

The real issue is enforcement of laws on the books.

Sign ordinances must be enforced fairly, consistently and constantly.

The same is true for local ordinances that protect trees and waterways. Laws are no good unless they are enforced, and that requires a great deal of effort and expense on the part of local governments. The key to the enforcement is consistency.

Bluffton seems to have bent over backward to be reasonable about the unpermitted temporary signs. Now it is time to enforce all of the law, all of the time.