2007-06-16 / Top News

City Will Tighten Sign Ordinance

By Karen Gould

The use of oversized price tags may be eliminated when the city finishes revisions to its sign ordinance. The use of oversized price tags may be eliminated when the city finishes revisions to its sign ordinance. Businesses filling their windows with merchandise, promoting services on awnings, using oversized price tags and sandwich boards, and piping music onto downtown streets could be found in violation of proposed changes to city ordinances. To protect the historic ambiance of the Island, the city's Ordinance Committee wants to stop these practices and plans to do so by strengthening the ordinance.

Meeting Wednesday, June 6, the committee agreed to revise its sign ordinance and will meet within a few weeks to review new language. Members also are considering updating the noise ordinance to eliminate piped music. The committee asked city attorney Tom Evashevski, building inspector Dennis Dombroski, and Island resident and attorney Dennis Cawthorne to draft ordinance wording that addresses concerns and complaints the city has received from residents, tourists, and other business owners.

"How do we legislate against poor taste?" asked committee member Armand "Smi" Horn.

The use of oversized price tags may be eliminated once the city finishes revisions to the sign ordinance. The use of oversized price tags may be eliminated once the city finishes revisions to the sign ordinance. "It's not a historic atmosphere," said Mayor Margaret Doud, who compared some areas to Coney Island, an amusement park in New York.

Committee member Mike Hart agreed, and said businesses piping music into the street create noise pollution.

"It distracts from the whole notion of the peace and quiet of the place," he said.

For almost an hour, the committee held a general discussion on window display problems, signs, awnings, and piped music, and how to regulate them.

Committee member Armin Porter said he had walked the downtown area that day and counted 140 T-shirts in the window of one store.

"Right now we've got windows that are 100% blocked," with merchandise, said Mr. Dombroski.

When T-shirt shops have been contacted about the concerns, Mr. Dombroski said, they point to the fudge store window displays showing all of the boxes, imprinted with the store's name, which can be seen from the street.

Wording allowed on awnings (above) will be clarified as the Ordinance Committee makes revisions. Wording allowed on awnings (above) will be clarified as the Ordinance Committee makes revisions. "Nobody wants to be singled out," he said. "Nobody wants to be told they can't have anything, so they try to point in another direction. It's not that simple to look at one versus the other. We've tried to limit the number of sale signs. We've tried to limit the numbers of products, but yet on every candy maker's candy box is the name of the business, sitting right there in the window, so isn't that additional signage?"

The committee discussed not allowing any merchandise to be attached to a window, although Mr. Dombroski speculated some businesses then would install a screen a few inches from the window and fill it with merchandise.

He suggested the committee consider amending the ordinance to stipulate that no more than 50% of a window can be used for display of merchandise.

"Sure, when you look inside a window you're going to see a whole store filled with merchandise, but that's casual viewing," he said.

Placing restrictions on clothing hanging on doorways (right) is an issue the ordinance committee again is considering, even though it lost in court several years ago. Placing restrictions on clothing hanging on doorways (right) is an issue the ordinance committee again is considering, even though it lost in court several years ago. "We need some way to stop them from covering the windows 100%," said Mayor Doud, "and that's what we're doing."

A second issue the city needs to address are complaints about price tags, said Mr. Dombroski. The concern is with fluorescent paper, either five inches by seven inches or 8.5 inches by 11 inches, attached to merchandise containing the word sale and including a price.

The ordinance does not limit the size of price tags.

"It looks tacky, and people are asking, 'Can't you do anything about that?'" said Mr. Dombroski. "That's a major complaint."

A third issue the committee discussed was sandwich boards, because they present a tripping hazard for people, said Mr. Dombroski, even if some are on private property.

Committee members agreed, noting that some boards are crudely built, using markers and construction paper.

Mr. Cawthorne said he had reviewed sign ordinances in Traverse City and Mackinaw City and both have banned sandwich boards. In Traverse City, they are banned completely in the commercial district, he said, which means they cannot even be used on private property.

While businesses are allowed special sale signs, restaurants are allowed a food "specials" board, and that now is becoming a safety issue by restricting doorways and serving as a tripping hazard.

"The problem with them is they are ending up on easels outside the doors," said Mr. Dombroski. "The fire department has had a major problem with that."

Concerns over too many awning signs have also been brought to the city. Some businesses have interpreted the ordinance to mean that if the business name is not on the awning, said Mr. Dombroski, then it is not considered signage, rather it is equivalent to posting a menu.

That's why there are a lot of awnings listing items, rather than the name of the establishment, he said.

Ordinance revisions would help resolve some of the issues the committee is addressing, said Mr. Evashevski.

The committee agreed that language in the ordinance regarding awnings requires clarity, and should be more specific to eliminate a variety of interpretations.

Those attending the meeting included Mayor Doud and her assistant, Kelly Bean, Mr. Hart, who chairs the Ordinance Committee, and Messrs. Horn and Porter. Also in attendance were Mr. Evashevski, Mr. Dombroski, Chief of Police Bill Lenaghan, and Officer Jim Marks. Mr. Cawthorne, who participated via telephone, is an Island property owner, attorney, and chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, although he said his input at the meeting was strictly as a private citizen.

"We can't let the lowest common denominator drag down what we're all trying to do," said Mr. Cawthorne, who expressed his concern over the appearance of some downtown businesses.

Adopted in 1998 and revised in 2002, the sign ordinance is designed "to promote and protect the social welfare and economic soundness of the city and its inhabitants by protecting the historic nature and enhancing the attractiveness of the city as a recreational resort, particularly in view of the following facts:

1) One of the great scenic islands of the Great Lakes area lies within the borders of the city, rich in Indian lore and historic interest dating back to the year 1670.

2) Because of the history and the natural beauty of the island, the city has become a world renowned recreational resort.

3) The city is, in effect, the steward for mankind for the preservation of both its natural beauty and its historical monuments."

The committee also reviewed whether its enforcement procedures are as effective as they could be.

The only remedy for violations of the sign ordinance is charging owners with a civil infraction, Mr. Evashevski said.

"We also have the remedy that no one can get a business license," he said, "if they are not in compliance."

Also, a business license can be revoked if the ordinance is violated.

"I think most of the tools we need are there," he said, noting that part of enforcement is having people available to enforce the ordinance.

Several years ago, the city lost a court case involving hanging clothing on doors. Then- Judge Stephen Ford ruled that the inside of a door is still the inside of a building whether it is closed or open, and clothing could be hung from it. Mr. Evashevski suggested the city revisit the issue.

The committee is expected to meet again sometime this month.

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