Originally created 06/20/00

Reprieve likely on sign ban



Broad Street restaurateurs will get to keep their sidewalk cafes. And businesses countywide will keep their temporary signs - at least temporarily - if Augusta commissioners do as expected today.

That was the message from city officials at Monday's meeting between Mayor Bob Young and Broad Street merchants upset over the controversial new sign ordinance.

City Attorney Jim Wall said the commission will vote on a moratorium on enforcing the ban on temporary signs at today's meeting.

"I anticipate that the moratorium will apply to temporary signs countywide," Mr. Wall said after the two-hour meeting.

The sidewalk cafes can - and most likely will be - legalized easily with a commission vote to allow right of way encroachment permits for tables and chairs, Mr. Wall said.

Sidewalk cafes were not addressed in the new sign ordinance, but city officials began enforcing the law that prohibits private property on public rights of way when it began enforcing the new ordinance recently.

Mr. Young directed the Broad Street merchants to elect three people to serve on a committee to work with city officials, but he refused to do the same for other Augusta merchants who showed up at the meeting. And he wouldn't let them speak until the Broad Street merchants had their say.

But both groups said plenty. In a nutshell it was: Temporary signs are the life's blood of small businesses, and advertising 15 days a calendar quarter is too little and too costly since each permit would cost $25 and the inspection $15.

"If I spend $200 on a banner, and it's costing me $200 a year to permit it, I can't afford it," said Danielle Seward, owner of Christian Studios on Eighth Street.

Several merchants asked that the sign ordinance be reconsidered.

"If it's not broken, why are we trying to fix it?" one asked.

One of the main complaints of the Broad Street merchants was the trees that obscure their businesses. Stan Fink, the owner of Antique World, said when the trees were planted, business owners were assured by city officials they would not exceed 7 feet, but they are now 30-feet and 40-feet tall.

"My business is off 35 percent in the last few years since the trees have grown up," he said.

And the merchants took little comfort from an assurances that in three years the trees will be so tall they won't hide the businesses.

"I personally can't go on a three-year hiatus from my business," one merchant said.

"A business without a sign is a sign of no business," said Carol Craig, owner of Carol Craig Studio & Gallery.

And comparing downtown to Washington Road, as Mr. Young and other officials have done, is comparing apples and oranges, she said.

Merchants also questioned the makeup of Mr. Young's appointed committee. Mr. Young assured them that business owners were on the committee but acknowledged that there were no retail business owners on it.

One Broad Street merchant asked if the city made an exception for tables and chairs would it do the same for merchandise on the sidewalks.

The Broad Street merchants elected Chuck Ballas, Robin Schweitzer and Coco Rubio to serve on the committee. They wanted more members, but Mr. Young would allow only three.

Regarding protests that that was not fair, Mr. Young said, "It may not be fair, but this is the way we're going to do it."

"That's the problem," said a woman.

After meeting with Broad Street merchants, Mr. Young met with those from suburban Augusta whose main concerns were the restrictions on temporary signs.

A Monte Sano Avenue merchant said he will go out of business if he is forced to remove his one visible sign.

"You need to consider this is a bigger city than Broad Street," he said.

And Surrey Center merchants Linda Walker, owner of Altogether, and Susan Lanier, owner of Susan's, said temporary signs are vital to their businesses. "Our signs generate a lot of business," Ms. Walker said.

Under the ordinance, only one temporary sign per 10 businesses is allowed in a shopping center per quarter.

Ms. Walker said there are 40 businesses in Surrey Center and asked if there was any way the center could display more than four signs at one time.

Gwen Williams, co-owner of Curtain Call, a retail fabric store off Bobby Jones Expressway, asked Mr. Young to appoint a committee to represent the suburban businesses.

"I think we're just as important as Broad Street," she said.

And Ray Peters, president of AAA Sign Co., suggested a "suburbia group" of three people and a 60-to-90-day study period.

Mr. Young said he would send the group's comments on to the commission.

After the meeting, Mr. Young denied discriminating against the suburban merchants.

"These people came in, and they met with the mayor today, and our attorney was here, and the inspections department head was here, and we heard their concerns, and we'll deal with them," he said.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.