The Longview City Council agreed to the city’s first change in digital billboard laws in more than a decade Thursday — and informally gave support to a charter school idea at a local educational academy.

By unanimous vote, council members approved amendments to the 2003 Sign Ordinance that among other changes will allow the triple-sided sign at the former Waffle Shoppe location to be removed. In exchange for the removal, billboard sign firm Lamar Cos. can retrofit one digital facing of an existing sign at another location along either Loop 281 or Marshall Avenue.

Sign amendments

Removing the triple-sided sign has been a key demand for a prominent retailer in its tentative plan to redevelop the restaurant site into an estimated $2 million investment that city staff has identified as a Starbucks coffeehouse.

Under the amendments, additional digital facings can be erected on a 4-to-1 ratio, so one sign facing can be retrofitted to digital as long as three other facings are removed elsewhere in the city.

Mayor Andy Mack and Development Services Director Michael Shirley have said the amendments maintain the intent of ordinances created in 2008 that were created to control the growth of digital signs in Longview.

Mark Priestner, a consultant who represented businesses that have worked to get the triple-sided sign removed, said that the original sign ordinance predates the Apple iPhone — which shows how much technology has changed.

“Technology has come a long way since then. You can look around this room and look at the impacts or changes in technology with screens in front of you, the flat screens on the walls. This council chamber looks different than it did 15 years ago,” Priestner said.

“I want to thank you all for taking up this item expeditiously. I really want to commend Michael and his staff for reaching out and seeking input from professionals on both sides of the issue to come up with an ordinance which is a step in the right direction.”

Other changes approved Thursday require that the billboard faces that are removed must add up to at last 1,200 square feet, Shirley said. Also, a digital facing can’t be larger than 400 square feet, and if there’s another sign on the back side of that same billboard pole, that other sign also must be a maximum of 400 square feet.

Academy

Council members gave Mack and city staff the greenlight in support of an idea to seek charter school designation for the East Texas Advanced Manufacturing Academy.

The academy opened more than a year ago and educates area high school junior and seniors for professional careers in machine operating, manufacturing and programming. Students are offered dual-credit courses in precision machining through Texas State Technical College and instrumentation and electrical technology through Kilgore College.

Longview ISD has served as the fiscal manager for the academy, located in the former Brew Honda building on West South Street, but Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox has introduced an idea to privatize the academy.

A charter school designation would could mean “large funds” from the state, Mack said, which ultimately could make the academy more attractive to students from across Longview.

Students attending the academy pay tuition of about $1,000 or more, he estimated.

“When you’re asking a school to take a kid out of their campus and put them in another campus and pay for it, it’s hard,” the mayor said, “but when you’re asking them to take them out of their campus, put them in another campus and it’s free, it becomes a whole lot easier. And I think that’s where we need to be looking at this, because if that’s the concept that can take place, I think that’s a win.”

Mack said Longview ISD has no guarantee of getting state funding, “but if they can and they do, we should be supporting it.”

When District 2 Councilwoman Nona Snoddy asked if the city’s role would be more promotional, Mack answered, “Absolutely.”

He said that the city isn’t agreeing to fund the academy but is instead lending support, encouragement, advertising and advocacy.

Thursday’s discussion about the academy was a discussion item. No vote was taken, though council members told the mayor that they were interested in the idea.

In other matters, the city purchased a new fire engine for $843,465, disbursed grants from hotel/motel occupancy tax funds and bought several lots of property where the city plans to build a new Longview Police Department station. The lots carried a combined cost of nearly $373,000 and will come from the city’s Public Safety Bond funds that voters approved Nov. 6.