China Grove signage rules heading back to planning board

Published 12:04 am Thursday, May 4, 2023

CHINA GROVE — As China Grove weighs amending its rules regulating signage, the town council opted to send the matter back to the planning board for an additional 30 days.

Town council members signaled a desire to see the issue resolved by the time it reconvenes in June for the regularly-scheduled monthly meeting.

“The planning board needs a little bit more time for consideration,” said Franklin Gover, the China Grove assistant town manager. 

Gover delivered a presentation to the city council on Tuesday outlining the planning board’s progress. As he pointed out, regulating signage can get tricky, with recent Supreme Court rulings — Reed v. Gilbert and Austin v. Reagan — outlining the constitutionality of those regulations. 

In the Reed case, the court ruled that regulations enacted by the town of Gilbert, Arizona, which grouped and regulated signage by categories such as political and ideological, were content-based since they targeted the sign’s content. Content-based regulations are considered unconstitutional since they violate the First Amendment Free Speech Clause. 

According to, under Reed, a law can be content-based on its face or due to a discriminatory purpose or justification. A content-based law draws distinctions based on the message a speaker conveys. Such a law might define regulated speech by a particular subject matter or by its function or purpose. It could even restrict speech based on the particular views expressed.

Regulating other signage elements, such as dimensions or approved materials, is different. 

“The most conservative angle from a constitutional understanding, we would allow painted signs of any size,” Gover said. “That is content-neutral … you can regulate the size, duration and manner that signs are applied.”

In Austin, the Supreme Court rejected the read-to-regulate test and explained that off-premise sign regulations are content-neutral because they distinguish based on location, not content. 

Signage issues arose with murals painted on the side of the China Grove-based Grove Cartel Brewing Co. Still, the larger discussion about murals and signage elsewhere around the city surfaced in the discussions. 

“I wanted Franklin to make this presentation because it is something that is not going to go away,” Mayor Charles Seaford said. “We are going to have to deal with it at some point in time.”

Given the high visibility of the murals, Seaford expressed a desire for the town to “measure twice” before it makes any changes.

“My thoughts are to send it back to the planning board or table it for at least 30 days for each of us to take a good hard look at it,” Seaford said. “Whatever we agree … is going to be lasting. With something lasting, you want to be sure. As someone who builds houses, you measure twice and cut once. I want to measure this twice and make the right decision for the people of China Grove.”

Council member Cheryl Sheets added, “There are strong opinions on both sides. I am open to letting it go back to the planning board if we could come back to it at the next meeting. In all fairness to someone wanting to do the mural, we don’t need to keep putting them off.”

At the core of Mayor Pro Tem Arthur Heggins’ support to send it back to the planning board was an insistence on equal treatment under the law. 

“We want to be fair to everyone, but at the same time, we are concerned about our town,” Heggins said.

The next China Grove Planning Board meeting will be held at City Hall on Tuesday at 7 p.m.