Some business owners confused by proposal on sign ordinances

Bill goes to council Monday night.
Sunday, February 4, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:09 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A sign ordinance proposal scheduled for a City Council vote Monday night has many downtown business owners scratching their heads. Some don’t see why a new ordinance is necessary. Others are confused about the legal language of the proposal. Still, more wonder why they should even worry about the proposal.

“I’m fine with it,” said Channing Kennedy, manager of Maude Vintage Clothing. “I have no problem adding a bit of class downtown.”

The ordinance proposed by the Special Business District board aims to reduce the size and amount of signs downtown through new regulations on wall signs, window signs and awnings. Signs that don’t comply will be covered by a “grandfather” clause that allows them to remain in place until they need to be altered or removed due to circumstances such as sign damage or business name changes.

Many businesses whose signs fall within the proposed guidelines or fall under the grandfather clause have not taken a strong stance for or against the proposal.

Cool Stuff owner and commercial realtor Arnie Fagan, however, sees flaws in the wording of the proposed ordinance. As he interprets it, the proposed changes would make over 100 signs in the District nonconforming.

Fagan said that he and relator Paul Land “drove down every street in the downtown area and counted and measured the signs to see whether they’d comply. Of the 270 businesses with signs visible from the street, over one-third don’t comply. More than one hundred businesses wouldn’t be able to have their current signs if they applied for them under the new ordinance.”

The proposed ordinance bans wall signs that reach higher than the bottom of the second story windowsill. The sign for Envy, 814 E. Broadway, for instance, has a letter E that would violate this rule. As a second-story business, Great Southern Tiger Travel, 27 S. Tenth St., would not be allowed to have a wall sign since the proposal only allows either a window or awning sign for upper-level businesses. Lower level businesses could only have one awning, window or wall sign, drawing into question Peace Nook, 804 E. Broadway, which has “Peace” on one sign and “Nook” on a second.

Special Business District director Carrie Gartner said that, based on the board’s survey of Broadway and Ninth and Tenth streets, approximately 95 percent of signs would comply with the proposed ordinance.

“A lot of signs right now are out of compliance with the current sign ordinance for any number of reasons,” Gartner said in an e-mail. “Many of these signs will not be affected by our ordinance because they already received a variance. If not, they may be repaired but not removed from the building.” A variance is a waiver of the sign rules granted by the Board of Adjustment.

Fagan and other opponents of the ordinance point out that if a sign is damaged by weather or other circumstances, a business will not be able to replace its sign as it once was, but will have to conform to the new standards. Similarly, if a new business moves into the space of an old one and wants to change the signs or awning, its signs must be within the tighter restrictions of the new ordinance.

“Small independent businesses are going to be hurt the most,” Fagan said. “Big businesses are going to be fine, but the little guy, who doesn’t have the money to advertise and relies on his sign, is going to get hurt worst.”

Special Business District board members see their proposal as a way to help downtown businesses. Included in a draft of their ordinance is an explanation for why they want the restrictions.

“This will enhance the attractiveness of the area, reduce visual clutter, increase property values and encourage tourism and other business,” Section 23-12 of the proposed ordinance reads.

Some business owners agree.

“In general, it is better than the current ordinance,” said Ruth LaHue, president of My Secret Garden, adding that she is glad sandwich board signs will be allowed under the proposed ordinance. “The reason we have to have a sign ordinance is because there are a few people who take advantage and don’t have any idea of what looks good.”

City Council members, who are likely to make a decision Monday night after a public hearing, said they are still undecided and are waiting to listen to arguments presented at the 7 p.m. meeting.

“I want to hear the whole story,” First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton said. “Nobody’s listened to the other side. A lot of people have objected to it.”

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