Originally created 06/19/00

Merchants, city to discuss sign ban



Augusta's new sign ordinance has triggered so much outrage among business owners from Broad Street to the Burke County line that city officials will give it another look this week.

Augusta Mayor Bob Young, who appointed the committee that crafted the ordinance, will meet with Broad Street and other merchants at 9:30 a.m. today in commission chambers on the eighth floor of the Municipal Building, 530 Greene St.

On Tuesday, the Augusta Commission will revisit the ordinance at the request of Commissioner Lee Beard and consider possible changes "relating to certain areas of Augusta, such as the downtown area."

The regular commission meeting is at 2 p.m. Tuesday in commission chambers.

Meanwhile, Broad Street is under an enforcement moratorium until city officials decide how the ordinance will be implemented there and in the shopping area around Monte Sano Avenue.

The Monte Sano area is similar to Broad Street in that the city owns the right of way up to the front door of shops. Some officials have suggested creating a special zone for all areas in Augusta's historic district, which is almost certain to trigger controversy and perhaps a lawsuit from business owners in other parts of Augusta.

Broad Street merchants and their customers contend the ordinance will destroy the blossoming charm of the downtown area. They said they have received overwhelming support in their opposition to it from throughout the area.

"It has actually brought people into the shop this week that ordinarily wouldn't have come," said Spiffy Miffy, owner of Spiffy Miffy's Gifts, 1034 Broad St.

"Other merchants throughout Augusta are beginning to organize and talk about hiring an attorney," said Regis Harrington, owner of Harrington's Banners and Signs in the Fairway Shopping Center on Washington Road.

Mr. Harrington said the ordinance will cause his banner business to drop off 80 percent and will force many small businesses to close their doors.

"I really think they went overboard on this," he said. "I think we need a sign ordinance to cover the right of way and clutter, but when they start coming onto private property .ƒ.ƒ."

Mr. Harrington said the sign-ordinance committee should have had some merchants on it because they are the ones the ordinance affects.

"Now the politicians don't worry about that because a lot of those people aren't in business," he said. "Bob Young is not a businessman. He has never been in business. He's never had to worry about a profit-and-loss statement."

The public depends on signs and banners to notify them of special sales, so the ordinance "hurts the public, too," he said.

"He's going to end up with a ghost-town look," Mr. Harrington said.

Thomas Murphy, owner of M&M Signs, 3535 Milledgeville Road, accuses city officials of "sneaking around" in drawing up the ordinance to keep people from voicing their opposition.

He called the ordinance "ridiculous."

"We're just going to have to charge more for our work," he said.

Despite two public hearings, several newspaper articles, and visits by the city's license and inspections department notifying them of the requirements of the sign ordinance, most merchants didn't realize what the impact would be until enforcement began in earnest.

When license Manager Stewart Walker began delivering the final warning along two blocks of Broad Street on June 8, Artists Row merchants were shocked and outraged.

At the direction of Mr. Young and other city officials, Mr. Walker told them they would have to remove their sidewalk cafes and sandwich-board signs. City officials have emphasized since that the ordinance does not ban sidewalk cafes. That is a different issue of encroachment onto public rights of way that is prohibited by state law, according to City Attorney Jim Wall.

"The tables and chairs have nothing to do with the sign ordinance," Mr. Wall said.

Mr. Wall said the ordinance must be enforced uniformly throughout the city. He contends all merchants have been given time to comply with the law.

Some Broad Street merchants and Mr. Young fault Main Street Augusta Executive Director Glen Bennett for not warning about the ordinance. Mr. Bennett walked the downtown area with Mr. Young and other city officials before the ordinance was passed the second and final time May 2.

"This was an issue that I raised with the director of Main Street, who has brought absolutely zero feedback to this government," Mr. Young said.

Mr. Bennett said he misunderstood the purpose of the walking tour of Broad and Ellis streets he took with Mr. Young and other city officials before the ordinance was passed.

"I guess I misperceived what the point of all that was," Mr. Bennett said. "My job is supposed to be a pass-through for information. I misunderstood I guess."

But the experience has "emboldened" him to do a better job of communicating with Main Street members from now on, he said.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.