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April 06, 2010 3:37 am

Signs: Merchants meet with city officials

Written by Tribune Staff

As city officials look at enforcing Powell's sign ordinance, some business owners worry it may hinder customer traffic.

“Signs are a lesser evil than empty storefronts,” said J. Philip Bott with the Basin Law Group, a Bent Street tenant that displays a sandwich-board style sign.

Bott and about a dozen Powell business owners attended the monthly Planning and Zoning Commission meeting last week, emphasizing how vital signs are for their success.

Sandwich-board style and electronic signs that were in violation of the city's ordinance recently caught the attention of city officials, who sought to enforce the local law regulating signs.

“Our intent was not to hinder anyone's business,” said Carol Richendifer, the commission's chairperson.

Rather, it was a matter of health and safety, and making sure the city ordinances is followed.

“Any time we have an ordinance that we're not enforcing, it is our problem,” said John Wetzel, city councilman.

After issues arose last month, the city's legal counsel said business owners needed a sign permit — but problems cropped up when several merchants went to obtain permits. There wasn't a permit form on file for temporary signs, such as sandwich-board style signs.

Nor does the city ordinance stipulate a fee for sign permits.

Other gray areas exist, and the ordinance needs to be more black and white, said William Petersen, the city building official.

“There are some details I really need to be able to process them (sign permit applications),” Petersen said last week.

“We need to tackle this — you're absolutely right,” Richendifer said. “But in the meantime, these business owners need to be able to do something with their signs.”

Following the meeting, a temporary sign permit was issued to business owners who applied. The permit is subject to any modifications made to the city ordinance.

Petersen said he plans to work with the Planning and Zoning Commission to update the ordinance and address concerns raised by local business owners. Final decision on any ordinance changes must be made by the Powell City Council.

“We should be able to come up with a law that works for everyone,” Petersen said.

Petersen added that he was thankful business owners shared their concerns, and he hopes they will continue to be involved in the process. Billie Smith, owner of Sweet Tooth Candy, presented research on the city's sign ordinance and comments that she gathered from downtown merchants who display sandwich-board style signs.

“I cannot stress how imperative it is to me to be able to have my sandwich board sign out where the traffic is most prevalent,” Smith said.

Smith surveyed her customers, and said more than 50 percent of them were drawn into her store by the sign, not the storefront.

“If I have to pull my sign back off the sidewalk or even to right in front of my shop, for my specific business, I don't think I'll survive when more than half of my customers come in because they see my sign or are reminded by it in passing,” Smith said. “If you don't see it, you aren't really going to meander inside.”

In Smith's survey of nearly a dozen business owners in the downtown area who have signs, many emphasized that the sandwich-board style signs are important to their businesses.

“It helps us with our foot traffic. We have never had complaints, only mention of people that didn't know we were here until they saw our sign,” wrote Krista Seifert, of Lets Talk Cellular, in the survey.

A concern for city officials is placement of the signs. A couple of signs that were located in an American with Disabilities of America (ADA) ramp have since been moved.

A few signs are located down the street from businesses rather than directly in front of stores, but Petersen said that's OK according to his interpretation of the ordinance.

Smith said she and Karen Lee, owner of Parlor News, have agreed on a rotation so they can both place their signs at the corner of Second and Bent streets.

“I don't know it's as simple as saying, ‘This is my spot, this is yours,'” said Councilman Wetzel.

He asked what would happen if other businesses down the street also wanted to utilize the corner.

“If it's a premium spot, it's a premium spot. How do we rectify who gets the premium spot?” he asked.

Signs that cause distractions to drivers or pedestrians also concern city officials.

One business owner asked how a retail store could legally use public sidewalk space for its merchandise.

“I don't want to pick on The Merc, but they're advertising with clothing racks,” said Dan Hadden.

“That is an obstacle in the sidewalk,” Wetzel agreed.

By city ordinance, businesses are not allowed to use public property for selling merchandise. An exception is the annual Crazy Days sale in the summer, Petersen said.

Richendifer said it was a good point, and the commission plans to address it as members revisit the ordinance.

Petersen said that, to his knowledge, this is the first time business owners and city officials have extensively discussed enforcement of the sign ordinance since it was adopted about 10 years ago.

Using the business owners' reaction to the sign ordinance as a gauge, “I'd say this is new ground,” Petersen said.

After 10 years, as technology for electronic signs has changed and sandwich-board style signs have become more prevalent, “that's exactly why we need to look at this again,” Richendifer said.