City orders removal of signs for fire dept. pancake breakfast

Firefighters Dave Hannon and Dave Coatsworth (background) take down a sign promoting the upcoming community pancake feed sponsored by the fire department. The signs had been tacked to utility poles at Winslow Way/305 and several other locations, but were ordered removed by the city after a citizen complaint. - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
Firefighters Dave Hannon and Dave Coatsworth (background) take down a sign promoting the upcoming community pancake feed sponsored by the fire department. The signs had been tacked to utility poles at Winslow Way/305 and several other locations, but were ordered removed by the city after a citizen complaint.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

The signs have been used for years to promote a community fund-raising event.

With a goofy grin, big doe eyes, and a professed love for pancakes, “Firefighter 22” doesn’t quite fit the criminal profile.

Yet, the life-size, plywood cut-out that has advertised an annual firefighter pancake breakfast and fund-raiser for the better part of a decade was finally exposed this week as a longtime, three-count violator of the city sign ordinance.

He and his handful of accomplices stationed at utility poles around the island were dutifully removed Thursday by the Bainbridge Island Fire Department after a resident complained to city officials.

“It makes me sad that we don’t have this opportunity anymore,” said Fire Commission Chair Glen Tyrrell, of the signs’ removal. “It was our only opportunity to get the word out about the event. But it makes me more sad that we offended someone in the public.”

No offense taken, said political activist Jim Olsen, who complained to the city about the signs this past week.

“I wish them a great success with their breakfast,” Olsen said. “But if those were ‘Peddy’ signs, we would have heard a great baying and screaming the next morning after they were put up.”

Olsen, the campaign manager for city code enforcement officer Will Peddy’s failed mayoral bid, said he’s taken repeated hits from the community about his wide distribution of campaign signs.

The apparent silence over the firefighter pancake breakfast ads and other common signs exposes an “extreme hypocrisy” over where residents focus their indignation, Olsen said.

“Everybody came unglued over the good Mr. Peddy’s signs, but nobody complained about these signs,” he said. “What gives?”

Olsen has filed frequent theft reports to Bainbridge police, alleging the disappearance of more than 230 campaign signs. Last week, he sent a letter to the city’s Department of Planning and Community Development charging the Bainbridge Island Firefighters Association, a nonprofit group that sponsors the annual breakfast fund-raiser, with numerous sign code violations.

“These signs are illegal and should receive the same attention and reprimand I have received on my sign locations,” Olsen wrote in his letter. “Please have these illegal signs promptly removed and admonish the owners.”

Admonishment came in the form of a letter from the city noting that the fire department was in noncompliance with the city’s ordinance.

“We didn’t turn this into a code enforcement case and just tried to get voluntary compliance,” said city building official Mark Hinkley, who is serving as interim code enforcement officer while Peddy undergoes an administrative review. The city is looking into alleged discrepancies in Peddy’s published resume uncovered during his mayoral campaign.

“Most people just don’t know (about the ordinance), so we offer a ‘soft letter warning rather than opening a full-blown case,” Hinkley said. “The firefighter signs were pretty mild in comparison to the campaign signs, but they were larger than we allow and it was attached to a power pole.”

According to the city’s recently revised sign ordinance, only political signs are permitted in public right-of-ways. No signs are allowed on utility polls, and they must not exceed 18 inches by 24 inches.

“Firefighter 22” and his kin violate all three regulations.

But so do many other common signs, firefighters say, including merchant kick-boards and notices for youth sporting events, concerts, garage sales and lost pets.

“Isn’t this the most ridiculous thing you ever heard?,” asked Arnie Jackson, who retired from the fire department in May after 45 years of service. “What about the kids who put up signs for their car wash at the local service station? So we’re having a pancake breakfast. But we’re not abusing anything.

“The end result is that we’re giving back to the community that’s belly-aching over the signs.”

The Oct. 8 pancake breakfast typically draws about 1,500 people and raised $5,000 for the department’s volunteer association last year.

That money then went toward firefighter training, a medical program and equipment, including the department’s firefighting boat. The event also features fire truck rides, of which 900 children and parents partook last year.

Tyrrell said the breakfast is an island tradition, with teams of firefighters trying to out-do each other with the finest grill work.

“It’s a great opportunity to meet and greet the community and is a good way for kids to fuel up before Saturday games,” he said. “There’s also quite a bit of competitive hotcake flippin’ going on.”

As the department’s sole vehicle for promoting the event, the cut-out signs may have to be replaced with costly print and mail ads, fire officials said.

Despite the setback, Tyrrell stresses that the fire department has no quarrel with the city over the signs.

“Ignorance is no excuse,” he said. “I personally was not aware of that ordinance. Violating an ordinance was the farthest thing from my mind. I thought they were in good taste and not offensive.”

The city typically enforces its sign ordinance only when a resident complains. Removing all signs that violate the ordinance would heavily burden city staff, said Planning Director Larry Frazier.

“Signs pop up like mushrooms on this island,” he said. “So, usually, we’re spurred by complaints – otherwise we could spend whole days taking down signs.”

Olsen said he isn’t suggesting the removal of all signs, but wants residents who are “losing sleep over Peddy signs and think they’re eyesores” to “take off the rosy glasses and notice the general sign anarchy.”

Changes to rules governing the placement of signs could be in the works if the public desires it, Hinkley said.

“We’ll try and work toward some changes if the community wants more flexibility and if it’s brought forward to the council,” he said. “Under the current limits, I understand it’s really hard. For nonprofits or youth and community groups that want to get the word out, maybe something can be brought forward that benefits them.”

Whether or not signs like “Firefigher 22” receive an official pardon, Tyrrell hopes residents will be tolerant of other community-spirited signs that may, on a technicality, stray on the wrong side of the law.

“There’s a brotherhood of family here on this island,” he said. “We’re a small town and these signs are a part of our community.”

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