City council denies variance request

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The Sealy City Council inducted a new member, debated its budget and got no feedback on the proposed tax rate last week, but the item that drew the most public interest at the Sept. 12 meeting involved discussion on a variance request for an off-premise sign from a fast food restaurant.

After about 30 minutes of discussion, the variance request unanimously was denied. 

“Most of the time, off-premise signs are not allowed,” said Interim City Manager Warren Escovy regarding the request from Whataburger. “In this particular case, Whataburger, about four or five months ago, opened a new restaurant location about five blocks south of where they currently are on [Highway] 36. The original site is about 500 or 600 feet from I-10.”

The sign in question is about 74 feet tall. Although the Whataburger restaurant is no longer at the original site, the property owners are asking to leave the sign there because it has good visibility from the interstate, Escovy explained. City staff and the planning commission recommended allowing the sign to remain at the original location because it’s already there, the visibility is good and the ownership has not changed.

The sign is not in good shape, Escovy, added, recommending that it be repaired and maintained. He is also recommending that the council require that the sign can only stay on that property while Whataburger owns it. The variance, if approved, would allow Whataburger to keep a sign that’s taller than 50 feet, Escovy said.

City Attorney Lora Lensch pointed out that the ordinance prohibits off-premise signs. If approved the council would be creating more of an exception than allowing a variance, she said.

“Once you authorize this, you need to be very careful because it would be applicable to anybody else in the future. Variances need to be applied equally and fairly.”

In response to Mayor Janice Whitehead, Lensch said this variance would not be permitted under a grandfather clause because the business is no longer there.

Councilman Larry Koy suggested the panel “stick with the ordinance and deny the variance.”

Lane Johnson, director of property management for Whataburger, said they don’t want motorists to think that Whataburger left Sealy altogether.

“The purpose of our asking for an exception or a variance is that we do consider this to be a grandfather situation,” he said. “The sign is there. We have a well-established reputation and long history in Sealy.”

Johnson addressed a concern raised by Councilman John Hinze that it might be a distraction for people to see the sign advertising a business in a different location.

“When they get off at either of those exits and turn down that road to go south, they are no longer looking for the pole sign, they’re looking for the Whataburger,” Johnson said.

In other matters during the Sept. 12 meeting, the council welcomed new member Chris Noack to his Place 2 seat. Votes were canvassed from the Sept. 9 special election. Noack received 144 votes, followed by Frank Lerma with 65 votes, Debra Luckett with 55 votes and Theadra “Cookie” Curry with 22 votes. 

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