Vicki Honeyman’s Heavenly Metal is easy to miss. Not only is it the sole retail shop on East Ann, but the business is also set back from the street. Until recently, Honeyman relied on a portable sign she set up on the northeast corner of East Ann and Fourth Avenue to bring in business. But earlier this month, a city official told her she had to take her sign down. In Ann Arbor, it’s illegal.
Honeyman says that since the city made her take her sign down, she’s seen a significant drop in the number of customers coming into Heavenly Metal. Without the sign, people don’t know her business is there.
“It’s completely affected my business,” Honeyman said, describing it as “devastating” to her income.
The Ann Arbor city council considered a measure in February that would have amended the sign ordinance to make portable signs legal, allowing businesses to buy annual permits to use them. But when that resolution was voted down, city officials decided to step up enforcement of the existing sign ordinance. Business groups and retailers have protested – it’s likely that city staff will propose a new permitting system for council to consider next month, one that’s based on sidewalk occupancy permits.
Sign Ordinance: Some Background
Honeyman’s sign was in violation of Chapter 61, Section 5:508 of the city code, which prohibits a variety of signs: exterior banners, pennants, spinners and streamers; portable exterior signs; and signs erected in the public right-of-way (excluding portable “open house” signs).
The ordinance hasn’t been strenuously enforced – in fact, the chair of the city’s sign board of appeals quit out of frustration about the issue.
There have also been efforts – so far unsuccessful – to change the ordinance. At its Feb. 16, 2010 meeting, Ann Arbor city council discussed a measure brought forward by councilmember Sabra Briere (Ward 1) to amend the sign ordinance. It would have regulated, through a permitting system, the placement of portable “sandwich board” signs, which are widely used.
During a public hearing that night, council heard from people on both sides of the issue. From Chronicle coverage:
Kathy Griswold raised concerns about possible interference of such signs with sight distances. If the system were to be complaint-driven, she warned, there could be delays in getting signs removed that obscured sight lines.
Also during the public hearing, Susan Pollay, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, read a brief statement on behalf of the DDA, saying that sandwich board signs are part of what makes for a vibrant downtown experience. She suggested that the system be adopted without permits and then reviewed after one year to determine if there was adequate compliance.
Carolyn Grawi of the Center for Independent Living pointed out that sandwich board signs can pose a problem for people with disabilities – for the blind, the signs are in unexpected places, and for those who use wheelchairs, the signs can pose access issues. Grawi cautioned that vibrancy did not necessarily mean cluttering.
During deliberations, several councilmembers – including Briere – said they felt the ordinance needed more work. It was unanimously defeated, and an increase of enforcement was foreshadowed:
What would the effect of defeating the measure be on those who were already using such signs? The city attorney’s office is recommending that the ordinance – which does not allow use of such signs – be enforced. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) expressed her concern that business owners be made aware that there would be enforcement efforts starting.
The issue was also discussed at a March 30, 2010 retreat of the Ann Arbor planning commission. From Chronicle coverage:
Commissioner Jean Carlberg questioned plans to dissolve the current Sign Board of Appeals and move their work to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Chris Cheng, project manager for efforts to amend Chapter 61 of the city code on sign and outdoor advertising, said one goal was to reduce the number of committees and boards. [...]
Wendy Rampson reported that the former chair of the [Sign Board of Appeals], Steve Schweer, had quit because he was unhappy over a lack of enforcement of the sign ordinances. That’s about to change, she added – Cheng would be starting to ramp up enforcement in April. Looking somewhat glum about that prospect, Cheng said, “There are a lot of illegal signs out there.”
Enforcement Picks Up, Businesses Protest
The city’s Community Standards Unit and Planning Division began issuing written warnings concerning portable signs on April 1. Business owners in violation were told to remove the illegal sign within 24 hours. The warning informed them that if they failed to do so, city staff would remove the sign and the offending individual would receive a citation and face a fine ranging from $100 to $500. City officials would also confiscate the sign in question without notifying the business owner if the warning wasn’t heeded. The code violation would qualify as a misdemeanor.
Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, told The Chronicle that at this point no tickets have been issued, just warning letters. She said several people have contacted her to say they feel the timing of the enforcement is less than ideal, given recent economic conditions. Those who have voiced complaints have said businesses are doing everything they can to bring in customers right now, and making them take down their signs isn’t helping.
Rampson explained that the city decided to start enforcing the ordinance in part because members of the public – including people with disabilities – have complained about signs obstructing the pedestrians’ right of way in the downtown area. Another factor, she said, was the city council’s unanimous rejection during its Feb. 16 meeting of the proposed ordinance amendment that would have made sandwich board signs legal.
“We felt we needed to move forward with a comprehensive enforcement,” Rampson said.
Separately, the city’s planning and development staff has been working for the past year to amend the sign ordinance in order to remedy inconsistencies, unrelated to the portable sign prohibition.
Businesses Weigh In
Honeyman said her sign was in a garden off the sidewalk, so it didn’t create an obstacle for pedestrians or create a hazard for handicapped individuals. The city’s actions in enforcing the sign ordinance are hurting small businesses, she said, and by extension the local economy and even the city’s personality. She accused the city of shirking responsibility for shops like Heavenly Metal in favor of big corporate entities like Google.
“The city of Ann Arbor needs us,” Honeyman said. “We’re the people who add color to the town.”
On the same day that she was issued the warning because of her sign, Honeyman said she sent letters of complaint to mayor John Hieftje, city council and Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. She has not received a response.
“Now I just have to wait and see what’s going to happen,” Honeyman said. “I’m not doing anything bad. I’m just trying to make a living. I’m not trying to be a rebel. Please, city of Ann Arbor, support me.”
Jeff Pickell, who owns Kaleidoscope Books and Collectibles on the northeast corner of North Fourth and Ann, just down the street from Honeyman’s Heavenly Metal, also received a warning about his sign usage. Pickell expressed confusion at the city’s action, saying that his sign had been on private – not city – property, and didn’t pose a threat to pedestrians.
“It’s not part of the traffic process,” Pickell said of his sign. “It’s not a danger or impediment. It’s off the sidewalk area. What’s the city trying to say?”
Pickell said he had contacted the city about the issue but also has not received a response. He said that taking down his sign likely won’t have a major impact on his business, since his store is more visible than Honeyman’s. However, he understands how the prohibition on signs hurts those whose shops have less of an obvious presence. Like Honeyman, he said the city doesn’t treat small businesses as kindly as it should.
“People are drawn to the city in part by the differences of the stores that are downtown,” Pickell said. “Small businesses should be protected. Not harassed. Not fined. It’s not only unnecessary. It’s stupid.”
City Backs Off, New Sidewalk Permitting System Possible
In light of the conflict surrounding the sign ordinance issue, Rampson said the city administration, planning staff and police department agreed to hold off on issuing any tickets or giving out any more warnings in order to discuss new approaches to portable signs. She said the Main Street and State Street area associations and the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce have shown interest in finding a way to make portable signs legal in the downtown area.
Members of the downtown merchants associations have suggested adding portable signs to the city’s current sidewalk occupancy permit system, Rampson said. Businesses currently file for sidewalk occupancy permits to reserve space in front of their establishment for dining or outdoor sales.
City officials are considering allowing business owners to use the same system, which would allow them to pay a fee for an annual or temporary permit to place portable signs on the sidewalk (with certain restrictions on, for example, the size of the sign). [.pdf file of current sidewalk occupancy permit application] A daily permit for sidewalk occupancy costs 5 cents for every square foot of sidewalk space. An annual permit costs $1 per square foot.
Although that’s the only solution to the portable sign issue being considered at this point, Rampson said other ideas might come up. In any case, city officials are looking to take action in the next couple of weeks.
“There is an interest in moving quickly,” Rampson said.
Ann Arbor city councilmember Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said she has drafted an ordinance that uses the same concept: changing the language of the sidewalk occupancy law to allow for portable signs. Briere said she sent the draft to city administrator Roger Fraser last week. Subsequently, she was notified that city staff will present the council with a memo on May 3 outlining a permit system that would make portable signs legal.
This week Fraser confirmed that his staff is working on a draft of an ordinance that would address the sign issue by modifying the rules for sidewalk occupancy permits, similar to the proposal that Briere has drafted. He also confirmed that city staff hope to present the ordinance draft to the city council for action at council’s May 3 meeting.
A Sense of Urgency
Briere said the legality of portable signs has been an issue for a long time. Not long after Briere first became a councilmember in 2007, Honeyman contacted her about finding a solution to the sign problem. In the summer and fall of 2009, Briere chaired a committee to come up with a way to make portable signs legal. The committee included Honeyman, South University Area Association director Maggie Ladd, Linda Briggs from the Ann Arbor Commission on Disability Issues, members of other merchants associations and the city’s planning department.
They concluded their meetings in November 2009. The proposal they drafted – which focused on changing the language of the city’s existing sign ordinance, rather than altering rules for sidewalk occupancy permits – was the one the city council voted down during its Feb. 16 meeting. Briere said the city attorney’s office and city staff had objections to the draft.
After voting down the proposed amendment, councilmembers asked city staff to continue working on the issue. Originally, Briere said, Rampson told the council that staff could have a revised ordinance ready in four months. Briere and other councilmembers, along with Ann Arbor business owners, felt that wasn’t fast enough. Though Briere said she understands that staff has a lot to do, she feels the city needs to take action soon.
“It’s getting to be warm weather,” Briere said. “People are walking around a lot. The city has a need to enforce the law. So, we should make it clear what the law is. Right now, we have not been enforcing the law for a number of years, so people believed what they were doing was legal. Now, people feel like we’re taking their rights away.”
And what about Honeyman and Heavenly Metal? Briere said including portable signs in the sidewalk occupancy permit system might allow Honeyman to place her sign on the corner of Fourth and Ann (something that the sign ordinance would not permit, since business owners are not allowed to place a sign on someone else’s property or on a street where they don’t have frontage).
Under the sidewalk occupancy permit rules, however, businesses that have frontage and/or a street-level presence on a certain street simply have first dibs on the sidewalk space. It’s possible for others to obtain permits for the space – this happens most prominently during the annual Art Fairs.
“[Honeyman] could get permission from the people on Fourth,” Briere said. “So, in theory, this could work for her. But whether people would allow it to happen, I just don’t know.”