Posted by: Rae | October 2, 2007

The Problem with Signs in Charlevoix

My location on Park Avenue has been a mixed blessing. Lower rents, al fresco dining, and lower traffic noise are happy consequences of having a location just off, but not on, Bridge Street. The downside is that resorters tend to stick to the main street as they wander from store to store and restaurant to restaurant in our downtown district. They may travel up and down Mason or Antrim Streets as they make their way from whatever parking places they are able to find, blocking hapless residents’ driveways, or even on their lawns, to Bridge Street. However, Park Avenue is the last street before the bridge, and the road to the hospital with not much parking, and therefore rarely traveled by pedestrians.

In the first block of Park Avenue, there is a used bookstore, a ramshackle (and fascinating) gift shop, a real estate office, and a mortgage broker, in addition to the Alcove Café. Chuck, the owner of the bookstore, in its 6th month of operation, is a just-retired attorney. The first time we met, he asked whether I would join him in paying for a single sign listing all of the businesses on Park Avenue, to be posted on the corner of Park Avenue and Bridge Street., where there is a clothing boutique. I agreed, and he set about getting the premission of the other business owners as well as the owner of the building upon which he would post the sign.

Signs are a matter of much controversy and debate in Charlevoix. The Planning Commission had just finished an updated sign ordinance, approved finally by the City Council in a heated meeting just a couple of months before. For months the Charlevoix Courier had carried stories, editorials, and letters from citizens debating illuminated signs that restaurants like McDonalds wanted to erect in front of their businesses (they lost). The consulting firm that completed a study of Charlevoix under Michigan’s Cool Cities program about the same time noted that signage was woefully inadequate – no signs pointing people to the hospital, the library, the historical museum, the community pool, or anything else in town. The question asked by those consultants was “how can a city that holds itself out as a vacation destination be so unfriendly to visitors?”

Both the old and new ordinances prohibit signs that are too large, lit from outside, hang on poles or are free-standing, hang perpendicular to buildings rather than flush against them, hang too close to the ground or too high off the ground.

I had investigated the sign ordinance prior to opening, because I knew I would be replacing the sign that hangs in front of the restaurant. The new ordinance hadn’t yet been approved, but it was in the works, so I had to review both old and new to be sure I wouldn’t have an issue. As it turned out, I had several problems. The 3 x 4 foot sign for the Acorn hung on a bracket out from the front of the building, its bottom about 8 ½ feet above the ground. It was too large, too close to the ground, and perpendicular to the building. The Acorn sign had been up for 14 years and was ready to fall. It was made of plywood, and you can imagine the beating it took during our winters less than a block from Lakes Michigan and Charlevoix. The wood was rotten, and it was a miracle no one had yet been beaned by it. I figured that an existing sign might avoid the scrutiny a new sign was sure to receive, so I had a sign created that is identical in size and shape to the Acorn’s. And passed it off as a new paint job.

I should also note that reading the ordinances, old and new, wasn’t easy. They’re nearly identical, differing primarily in section numbers. They’re embarrassing, to put it kindly.

Given my experience to date with the whole sign issue, I figured Chuck would be in for a rough ride, and he was. He obtained the permission of every business owner, and the building owner. He convinced Joe, the head of the Historical Society around the corner on State Street, to consolidate signs. Joe had put up a sign years before without a permit, and gotten away with it, being not-for-profit. I suggested we talk to Casey, the new executive director of the Downtown Development Assocation and manager of the Cool Cities project, to see whether we might bypass the Zoning Commission and get to a more general solution (the consultants had recommended kiosks).

Casey’s take on the issue was that unfortunately, since the Planning Commission had just completed an ordinance re-write, timing was terrible, and it would probably be a long time before a more general solution could be devised. After spending months on its minimal re-write of the ordinance, Planning Commission members would be embarrassed to find it so quickly in need of revision. We had no choice but to approach the Zoning Commission.

So Chuck filled out the forms requesting a sign permit and delivered them to our parttime zoning commissioner, whom I’ve never met because she is never in her office as far as I can tell. His request for a permit was denied, and he was told that his next option was to request a variance . He asked the Zoning Commissioner what the basis for this denial was, since not knowing made it difficult to frame a variance request, and was finally informed that the sign was an “off-premise” one, and therefore prohibited under the ordinance.

Recall that Chuck is an attorney. He read the ordinance, and although he found a reference to off-premise signs in the definitions section, nowhere in the ordinance are such signs prohibited or even discussed. When he raised this issue with the Zoning Commissioner, she told him she’d really not had time yet to read the new ordinance. Makes you wonder how she decides whether to approve permits. And then she said she’d have to get back with him. A week or so later she did, and informed him that because the ordinance didn’t specifically allow off-premise signs, they were assumed to be prohibited.

Of course Chuck was taken aback, I was amused, and we had a few sputtering conversations about green signs, Spanish-language signs, signs with quotes on them, and so on. Chuck decided to request that the Zoning Commission interpret the ordinance properly and overrule Diane at its next monthly meeting.

Before I continue with this tale, I have to explain a bit about Chuck’s previous experience with signs. His bookstore is in an old house, and is easy to miss. I often point it out to customers in the restaurant, some of whom are bemoaning the fact that we don’t have a bookstore in town, and he’s right across the street! In an attempt to advertise his existence to those pedestrians on Bridge Street, he bought a cheap tent sign that he put on his front lawn near the sidewalk, the sidewalk that no one walks on because no one knows there’s anything to see on Park Avenue. One day a police car raced by with flasher going and pulled up to Tony’s place. We were alarmed, assuming that he’d been robbed, but it turned out the police were there to tell him to remove his sign, which was in violation of the ordinance. No free-standing signs.

It had become a matter of principle.

Chuck asked the Zoning Commissioner what he had to do to take the issue before the commission and was told that his only option was to request a variance, using a variance request form. But Chuck didn’t think he needed a variance, since the ordinance, properly read, didn’t prohibit off-premise signs. Nonetheless, since this was his only option, he paid the fee and filled out the forms. It was too late to make the June meeting of the Commission, however, because by law interested parties had to receive two weeks’ notice of meetings. So it would have to go before the July meeting. This, of course, was meant to discourage Chuck, since the summer would be nearly over before he could resolve this issue.

He filled out the form, the third page of which was simply a list of types of signs. He turned the form in, but it was returned to him because he hadn’t filled out page three. So he wrote some stuff on page three (there was nothing to fill out), and turned in the form. The city engineer called Chuck to talk, and informed him that the Michigan Department of Transportation had told him ten years ago that all signs within the line of sight of drivers on Bridge St. (a state highway) were prohibited by state law, which is why signs like this couldn’t be hung. That night Chuck called an attorney friend who specializes in sign law, and obtained a copy of the statute, which states that in business districts the state defers to local authorities for sign standards. There is no such state prohibition. Apparently the city engineer and City Council have failed for ten years to address this situation because someone had a discussion with someone, no one knows who, in MDOT and was told, in error, that they couldn’t address it. And no one ever bothered to check the facts.

Two days later the Zoning Commission returned Chuck’s variance request and check to him in the mail. When he called for an explanation, he was told that they just “assumed” he wouldn’t want to go forward with his request in light of his conversation with the city engineer. Chuck had to take care of some business in Ann Arbor, so I walked the check and forms back to the ZC’s office, and the meeting was scheduled.

Chuck, Cassandra (owner of the gift shop), Diana (my landlady), Jim (head of the Historical Society), and I showed up a little before 6, when the meeting was scheduled, and took seats in the front row. Our mayor didn’t show up and another couple of commission members were missing as well, because our Lieutenant Governor decided to show up in town at the same time for a public meeting. Or maybe it was a league softball game. That happens sometimes in our town.

We were first on the agenda. The head of the Commission stated for the record that we were requesting 6 signs to be placed off-premise. Chuck stood up and stated his name and then explained what we were requesting – a single sign listing all businesses on Park Avenue. And then stated that he did not feel a variance was required since the ordinance had been mis-interpreted, and then he explained the ordinance for the panel, although he was sure they had all read it in preparation for the meeting (of course none had).

The assistant city attorney interrupted to state that the meeting had been called to address a variance request and proper notice had not been given for an ordinance interpretation. Of course, there’s no way to request an ordinance interpretation. So Chuck explained that there was apparently no way to request an ordinance interpretation, but that since he was very clear about what he wanted when he filled out the variance form, and was sure everyone had read it, and this was a properly-noticed meeting, there was no notice issue.

Needless to say, it wasn’t clear whether anyone on the commission had read the ordinance, or knew how to read the ordinance. Although it is their responsibility to interpret and enforce the ordinance, they’d never had to do it before, and were reluctant to set a precedent, which might result in all kinds of businesses doing what we had …. I almost laughed out loud imagining the horror that would result should all businesses on all 6 side streets manage to place signs on the corners of buildings. 6 signs! Assuming all 6 landlords would agree. The city would never recover.

The city engineer stepped in with his “MDOT won’t allow it, somebody told us that 10 years ago” excuse, and Chuck was permitted to read the state statute into the record. The assistant city attorney looked like he was ready to explode, and the city engineer was busy worrying about the Courier reporter madly taking notes in the corner. Eventually the panel skipped over the ordinance issue altogether and denied the variance, the one not requested, on the grounds that its purpose was commercial in nature. I guess the only sign variances permitted are for residences. The commissioners did assure us that their hearts were with us, they understood our need, but felt it was a Planning Commission responsibility to solve the signage problem. There’s a hole in the bucket …

We left, Diana and I to get a drink at Scovie’s Waterfront Grille. And when I drove home, I passed a large utility trailer parked across the street from the library. On its side is a large sign that says “Rudy’s Home Improvements, Remodeling and New Construction” with phone numbers. Our mayor’s company. And the trailer was still there a week later, strategically placed for the Venetian Festival.

Of course it’s not over. Chuck spoke with the city attorney. And Casey has decided to take this on, so the Planning Commission is working on the sign problem and expects to have a solution for all off-Bridge-Street businesses by next summer. The city engineer and zoning commissioner have both retired, and we have a new city manager. I doubt it has anything to do with our sign fiasco, but it couldn’t have helped …

I have decided that signs are only one way to advertise. I purchased 4 red market umbrellas, along with five tables and chairs. They’re all out in front of the restaurant. I have flowers in pots all over the sidewalk. Chuck, Cassandra, and I all have banners (“Open” and “Welcome”) flying. It looks like a carnival is in progress on Park Avenue. Bunches of helium balloons are next. And we did have a lot of fun taking on city hall.

I’ve changed the names to protect the participants, more or less. If you live here, you know who all of these people are anyway. Do your own translation.

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