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Business is fined $48,000 for signs

Nick Felkey didn’t really mind taking the Christmas card samples off the windows of his Bainbridge Photo Lab in Lundgren Station.

While he admits he hadn’t paid close attention to communications from the city suggesting that he was violating the sign ordinance, he didn’t press the point when code enforcement officer Will Peddy told him – in person – that the cards created a violation by covering more than 25 percent of the window area.

What Felkey wasn’t prepared for was a letter he got last week from the city, signed by Peddy, saying that the city was imposing a fine of $500 per day – from Aug. 16.

From that day through Nov. 21, the date of the letter, is 96 days. At $500 per day, that’s $48,000.

“I just sort of laughed and asked if they wanted it in dollar bills or pennies,” Felkey said, acknowledging that the small business he and his wife run could not possibly pay a fine of that magnitude.

City Administrator Lynn Nordby said Felkey won’t have to pay anything close to that amount.

“There is a $140 charge for the amount of Will’s time that was involved,” he said, “and he’ll have to pay that. The $500 per day amount is in our ordinances, but that’s really only used if we have to go to court and the guy still won’t cooperate.”

Felkey got a letter last June saying that his signs might violate the city sign ordinance. The letter asked him to get in touch with Peddy’s office to discuss the possible violation and try to resolve the problem. Felkey didn’t do that.

“I didn’t pay close enough attention to it,” he said. “It seemed sort of like a form letter going out to everyone. And it didn’t say anything about my windows.”

Code-go-round

The episode is another chapter in the city’s lengthy battle to bring businesses into compliance with the city’s sign ordinance.

Last spring, the planning department documented 213 apparent violations of the code, and sent letters asking the merchants to get in touch with the city.

Meanwhile, the city council’s community relations committee, believing that signs did not constitute a significant problem, began reviewing the ordinance to see if it needed changing. It determined that some of violations were for awnings that were not as high above street level as the code requires. Nordby conceded that raising them to the prescribed height “can be a very expensive building change.”

So the council opted to amend the sign ordinance, bringing virtually all downtown business awnings into compliance.

According to Warren, there are only 29 apparent sign code violations remaining around downtown. The balance have been resolved since the original letters went out.

“The process is ongoing and it’s working,” Warren said.

At Bainbridge Photo Lab, the window issue came up when Peddy appeared in November and started taking pictures of the business.

“He gave me his card and got in my face for not responding,” Felkey said. “He said he would send a letter and if I was not in compliance, there would be a fine of $500 per day.”

Felkey removed the offending Christmas card samples and informed Nordby he had complied.

While he says Nordby told him there would be no $500 per day fine, he’s still not comfortable.

“After that, I got a call from some woman in the planning department saying that they would try to collect the money,” Felkey said.

But Nordby cited the business owner’s failure to communicate.

“He ignored several communications,” Nordby said of Felkey. “I told him he needs to pay more attention to official mail.”

Nordby described the letter imposing the fine as an attention-getting device. He said he believed Peddy had sent such letters to other businesses, who also would be charged only for the enforcement time if they come into compliance.

Peddy’s was unavailable for comment and his office has referred questions regarding the sign-enforcement situation to planning director Stephanie Warren.

Felkey said the city could also communicate better.

“This whole thing would have been unnecessary if someone would walk around to the businesses talking to us,” he said, “instead of sending out a blanket form letter.”

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