Sign code may get makeoverMany downtown business shingles are said to be out of compliance.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:51 PM
"Artist Kuy Hepburn was preparing for his Mother's Day sale of glass flowers at his Sands Avenue studio and residence when a visitor appeared.It was not a customer, as Hepburn had hoped. Rather, it was Bainbridge Island code enforcement officer Will Peddy, telling him the signs promoting his sale were illegal.I work out of my home, and have to have signs somewhere else to attract buyers, Hepburn said. I thought that if they weren't in the right-of-way, I would be okay.Not so, said Peddy, pointing to a code provision barring off-premises signs. While Hepburn got off with a warning - and did not have to take his signs down - he said the warning also came with a piece of advice: If you don't want a ticket, get the law changed.So Hepburn began a campaign to do just that. He found a receptive ear with the community relations committee of the Bainbridge Island City Council, members of which are considering amending the code to permit temporary signs announcing artist sales.My sales on Christmas and Mother's Day amount to 16 percent of my gross, Hepburn said.Noting that the island says it wants to promote artists, Hepburn says, there is a discrepancy between the intentions of the city and the sign code.That discrepancy is not confined to artists. Violations of the code appear to be widespread, Peddy says. But actual problems created by those violations are pretty minimal, according to Liz Murray, chair of the council's community relations committee, and sign ordinance author Bruce Anderson.As a result, a planned crackdown on sign-code violators may mean more changes to the ordinance than to the look of Bainbridge.Generally, the signage is pretty good. There haven't been glaring problems and I haven't heard everyone complaining, said architect Anderson, who drafted the city ordinance in the early 1990s.Low complianceA rash of apparent violations came to light last fall when the owner of a new business on Madrone Lane was told that a proposed sign violated the code. The business's construction manager then made a list of violations at other nearby businesses, presented that list to Peddy, and said that singling out his client would be selective enforcement.Peddy agreed.We sent out two staff people to document possible violations, and found over 200, Peddy said. The final total was 220 apparent violations, 127 of which were in downtown Winslow.Further review, though, indicates that the real problem might be with the ordinance, not with the signs.For example, Peddy said, the ordinance permits lettering on awnings, but requires the awning to be at least 10 feet above the sidewalk. Changing that minimum-height requirement to eight feet, which is consistent with the Uniform Building Code, would eliminate about half the violations, Peddy said.Another widespread problem is hanging signs. According to Josh Machen, the city planner who deals with signs, there is no provision in the ordinance at all for such signs.The closest thing available is projecting signs, Machen said, but those are limited to no more than two square feet.That provision, he said, is widely violated, particularly in Winslow Mall.But the hanging-sign issue might be another problem with the code, Machen said. He pointed to the design guidelines for the mixed-use town center, which includes downtown Winslow. The guidelines encourage creative and whimsical signs, and show illustrations that look remarkably like the signs in the Mall.Personally, I think the signs in the Mall look pretty good, Machen said.The council is actively considering how to amend the ordinance to make it conform more closely to actual practice.We will be looking at the awning change and the problem with hanging signs, said Murray. And there have been other suggestions to make things easier on artists.Murray agreed that there was no widespread perception of rampant abuse, and that the existence of a large number of violations suggests a need to re-examine the ordinance.We're beginning those discussions now, she said. We have tried to take care of this kind of thing, but the whole ordinance has taken so long we might have missed a few. The city is taking a go-slow approach to enforcement. Peddy is planning to send letters to the apparent violators saying that their signs may be out of compliance. Rather than specifying the possible violation, the letter will ask the recipients to contact the office to discuss the problem.We think that will clear up some of the problems, Peddy said. For example, it may be that we have no record of a permit being issued, but the owner did get a permit from the county before (island-wide) incorporation. If they show us the permit, that takes care of the problem.The letter will specify that no enforcement action will be taken until July 31, but that thereafter, compliance will be required. The penalty for non-compliance is potentially draconian - a $500 fine per violation, with each day of non-compliance constituting a separate violation.That cutoff date, though, applies only to those newer signs erected since the the effective date of the ordinance. Nonconforming sign existing as of July 26, 1993, have until July 2003 to conform.The push for enforcement is originating with Planning Director Stephanie Warren, who said she has received complaints, mostly about the size of signs.The complaints have been going on for a long time, and we need to find out what we're dealing with, she said, adding that feedback from recipients of the letters will provide necessary information about whether the problems are with the signs or the ordinance.Warren said, though, that letters would not be sent to sign posters where the violation is one that the council may fix. We want to find out from the community relations committee what changes are under consideration, she said, and we will hold off on them. "