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Signs a sore subject

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Sequim business owners who have been critical of the city's new signs ordinance agree with City Attorney Craig Ritchie on one important point.

The ordinance isn't ideal.

In fact Ritchie, who has the unenviable job of defending the ordinance, said it's "stupid."

But, he added, that's not due to local issues or an anti-business intransigence on the part of the city council or the city's management team.

Rather it can be traced to the famous, and infamous, Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The ruling, which established that free speech rights accrue to corporations, was preceded by another handed down by a federal court in Washington state. Ritchie said the earlier case, decided in 2006, provided evidence of where the courts were headed. 

In the famous "Blazing Bagels" case, the federal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the City of Redmond's signs ordinance was unconstitutional.

The ordinance, the judges said, dealt with the content of signs. They struck it down.

"Time, place and local dimensions — and that's all cities can regulate," Ritchie said. 

Within that framework cities have a little leeway: a signs ordinance can be tailored specifically to reflect "compelling government interests," including esthetic concerns and safety and health issues.
 
Recent rulings also allow cities to establish different zones with different ordinances.

Ritchie isn't a fan of the Citizens United ruling, saying there should be limits to corporate speech. 

"The courts disagree," he said.

Walking a tightrope

Ritchie said in recent years the city has been making an effort to create an ordinance that meets constitutional muster while helping "create both a vitality in the economy and an attractive city."

So far, the changes have resulted in a number of disgruntled business owners.

Michele Scott, owner of Artisan Creative Consignment in Sequim Village Shopping Center, said she's particularly concerned with the new rules that restrict the number of signs that can be placed adjacent to Washington Street. 

"We're extremely disappointed," Scott said. "My business has been cut in half."

Even more than the restrictions, many of the business owners cite what they describe as the ordinance's unfairness, noting that business owners in the downtown area are allowed to place signs on the sidewalk in front of their businesses. They said that while the city says the signs are designed solely to catch the attention of pedestrians, they also draw in drivers on Washington Street.

"They have a double standard," said Randy Wellman, owner of Tarcisio Italian Place. He's convinced the differing rules aren't altogether coincidental, saying the city is more interested in promoting the downtown commercial area. "The downtown corridor is their big thing. On either end (of the city), we can't say anything."

Mitch Hebert, owner of Grocery Outlet, also was blunt. "They're helping their businesses. They're killing ours."

Hebert and the other business owners added that they don't want to see further sign restrictions downtown and instead are simply seeking a level playing field.

Revealing differences

Ritchie agreed the rules are different for the downtown merchants, but he argued that they're fair. And, he said, they've been made more fair with recent changes.

He noted that the city had earlier banned A-frame, free-standing sidewalk signs in strip malls. That's been removed from the ordinance. "It seemed like we had over-regulated the interior of the malls by saying the signs weren't allowable if they could be seen from the street." 

He said he has met with business owners within the Sequim Village Shopping Center to further iron out the issues. 

One result, he said, is a new provision that will allow a small number of permanent sign frames to be placed near the street, with the signs switched out on a regular basis. That way businesses can advertise special offers.

The landlord will manage the signs and the policies regarding its use.
"We fixed it," Ritchie said. 

Owners of businesses within the Sequim Village Center disagree, saying important issues remain.

Wellman gave an example, noting the current rules require that signs for special offers can't run consecutively. They must be taken down for 30 days at a time between offerings. 

He said that rule recently prevented him from properly advertising both his Christmas specials and his New Year's specials.

He's also blunt about the predicament he's in, saying he's had to cut a number of jobs. 

Like all of the business owners, Wellman agreed the current economic downturn is a factor. And, he added, the new Black Bear Diner "has put a hurt on me."

Wellman said he's struggling to keep his business afloat, but isn't getting much help from City administrators. 

"They make me feel like we're not welcome," he said. "They only want the big box stores."

Hebert, who says his Grocery Outlet is "a little big box," isn't any happier.

"The signage ordinance is ridiculous. It's putting people out of business."

He said that when the store opened in August 2011 they had a temporary banner announcing the grand opening. With that sign, he said, they were able to pull in 700 customers a day. When it came down, the number dropped to 400 a day.

"I still have people walking in who don't know I'm here."

He added, "This is an ordinance for a much bigger city. They want to keep the city small."

Ralph Lovely, owner of the recently opened Sequim's Fresh Seafood restaurant, said the ordinance also is making matters more difficult for his business. 

"It's hard to get the word out when they're confining you to a smaller and smaller box." 

Lovely said it's hardly a matter of simply increasing profits. "I have a part-time job," he said. "My employees make more than I do."

Location, location

Ritchie said part of the issue lies in where a business owner chooses to locate. Buying property in downtown provides certain advantages, he said, as does setting up shop in a strip mall. 

By building on a lot that immediately abuts the downtown sidewalk, a business is likely to enjoy more foot traffic. To draw in that pedestrian traffic, the city provides downtown businesses with more latitude for sidewalk signage.

To extend those same rights to every business in a strip mall would result in hopeless clutter, he said.

Mark Ozias, co-owner of the Red Rooster Grocery in downtown Sequim, said the A-frame-sign he places on the sidewalk every day makes a significant difference for his business, drawing in as much as 20-30 percent of his business.

He said the City "seems to have been trying very hard to work with the business owners.

"I appreciate their efforts."

Ritchie said the business owners beyond the limits of downtown have special advantages, including significant on-site parking.

"They want the advantage of parking in front and the advantages of downtown. They're not next to the road, so they want to substitute for that with signs next to the road."

Rick Williams, owner of R&T Crystals, said he took the idea to the max by placing signs for his business, which is two blocks south of Washington Street, on the Washington right-of-way.

The city said that was a no-no. 

"I fought them for over a year," he said. "Their sign codes are illegal."

He said if some companies can place their signs on the sidewalk, other companies also should be able to. "It's discriminatory and they know it."

He agreed signs can "be polluting," but, he added, "signs get business." 
"I've made suggestions but they haven't listened."

His suggestions included placing poles on the main drag that would have multiple directional signs for nearby businesses.

Williams said he's ready to tangle. "They take my signs down but won't fine me. I was begging for a fine. My lawyer is waiting."

A show of hands

Hand-held signs also are a subject of continuing friction. 

At their Dec. 10 meeting, Sequim City councilors heard for a second time from Chris Farmer, owner of the Sequim Domino's Pizza. He said he is following new rules that ban hand-held signs in front of his business. That cost two local jobs, he said, and on the first day his "business dropped by 75 percent."

It takes away all the impulse buys," he said.

Ritchie agreed, saying that a fundamental part of the rule regarding hand-held signs is to ensure road safety. "A hand-held sign tends to draw the attention of traffic. People on impulse drive in and buy a pizza."
 
"By definition, that's distracting traffic. That's what the business wants, but not what the city wants."

"And," he added, "hand-held signs are generally the least esthetically pleasing."

He said providing monument signs that also provide an opportunity to post special offers may be the answer.

Ritchie said the city is attempting to produce an ordinance that avoids the twin traps of "visual clutter and sign dilution."

"If everybody in town who owns a business could have guys or gals walking with signs, who would see them? It creates an environment where nobody wants to shop."

Kurt Miller, owner of Designer Art and Jewelry, continues to employ Richard Carlson to wave a sign for his company, which also buys and sells gold. Miller said he's been working with the city, including moving Carlson to the middle of the block to ensure he's not blocking the view around trafficked corners.

"I've done everything I can," he said. "I would hope the answer is some flexibility." 

He agreed that the signs can have an esthetic impact. "When the signs are ugly and tacky, that's an issue." 

But, he said, the city is shooting itself in the foot if it hurts the businesses through too-restrictive sign ordinances. That will reduce the tax base, he said.

Back to the drawing board

During a recent discussion, the business owners also complained about the city's lack of responsiveness. "They made it sound like they wanted to work with us," Wellman said. "We want to work with them."

Mike Hallis, who with his wife, Kris, owns Jeremiah's BBQ, echoed those comments. He said when they first moved to town in 2004, the city administrators were keen to work with them. "They wanted to help out the mom and pop businesses."

That's no longer true, he said.

Karen Kester, owner of Karen't Quilt Shop, said the ordinance "just needs to be clear and concise. And it never has been."

Ritchie said the city has held "public meeting after public meeting," on the ordinance.

And, he said, the city is willing to continue listening. He said it can be amended further, as many times as required.

Several councilors, including Ted Miller, have expressed an interest in listening to, and responding to, the concerns of business owners.

"The entire council wants to know how to accommodate these approaches and keep an attractive city," Ritchie said.

Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

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