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Vidalia mayor breaks tie to allow billboard to stay on Carter Street

VIDALIA — One Vidalia billboard seems to be garnering as much attention in City Hall as it does on Carter Street.

In a special called meeting of the Vidalia Town Council on July 31, Mayor Buz Craft broke a 2-2 tie vote on a motion to remove a sign for a Vidalia hotel that two board members said was out of compliance with the town’s ordinance.

Craft’s vote allowed the sign to remain.

The sign, located on the property of the former RaceTrac convenience store and gas station, is owned by Virgil Jackson. He is also the owner of the Clarion Suites hotel on the Vidalia Riverfront. The hotel recently changed its name and was formerly known as the Comfort Suites Hotel. Jackson uses the sign for advertising his hotel and recently changed it to reflect the name change.

The same sign was the subject of controversy in 2017 when Jackson submitted an application to redesign the old RaceTrac sign for his hotel. Aldermen first denied the application without discussion then later approved after contentious discussions with Jackson, who said he was cleaning up an eyesore for the community.

In the special called meeting, Aldermen Tommy Probst and Robert Gardner said Jackson violated the town’s ordinances when he changed the sign. The changes, Probst and Gardner claimed, required the sign to be re-approved.

Gardner made the motion to have the sign removed immediately. Probst and Gardner voted to remove the sign. Aldermen Jon Betts and Brent Smith voted to allow the sign to remain. Alderwoman Rose Demby was not present at the meeting.

Craft said changing the name of the hotel on the sign did not substantially alter the sign and therefore did not require any action.

“Changing the name of his hotel is not substantially altering a billboard sign. If he was going to build a big golden arch over that sign, then yes, that is substantially changing a sign that would require a permit,” Craft said. “But what he is doing is changing the name on his billboard to improve our town. How can you be against something that has been an eyesore in our town and advertises this man’s business in which the town is getting hundreds of dollars in taxes? How can we be against this man?”

Town attorney George Murray read from the city’s muni code and said the mayor was correct.

“Just changing the name of the hotel does not apply,” Murray said.

Craft suggested that more is at issue than the sign, but didn’t say what he was referring to.

“I want to know what is really going on,” Craft said.

Craft wondered why addressing the sign was such an urgent matter that a special meeting had to be called on the week of his vacation.

Probst said he had received numerous calls from concerned citizens and was very worried that allowing the sign to remain would lead to more signs being erected on Carter Street.

“This is going to produce a lot of signs up and down the road if we allow this sign,” Probst said.

Gardner said protocol wasn’t followed, and therefore the sign should be taken down.

“It should have been brought by the complete board and the mayor by himself,” Gardner said.

Newly-elected board member Smith said arguing over the sign is “petty stuff.”

“I can see why we have a hard time getting industry to our location,” Smith said. “The sign has been there, and it looks good.”

Before the vote, Jackson addressed the council with his comments and concerns.

“I am totally disappointed in these two,” Jackson said, pointing to Probst and Gardner. “I have done so much for this town, and you have not.”

During his comments, Jackson threatened to sue Gardner and Probst and made other accusations that drew several taps of the gavel from Craft, which ended the discussion.