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Bainbridge retail growth may call for review of sign code

As Bainbridge grows and more businesses begin to take root downtown, revising the sign-code ordinance is beginning to gather steam again.

At last week’s Community Relations Committee, council members decided to make an overhaul of the city’s sign ordinance an issue to tackle in 2009.

The ordinance currently regulates the placement of signs around the island to both protect public safety and to help maintain the rural look and feel of the island’s roads.

However, many business owners argue that the ordinance limits their ability to adequately promote and attract customers.

The latest occurrence to pit business owners against the city’s sign ordinance occurred last month when sandwich boards outside of the new development on the corner of Madison Avenue South and Bjune Drive were found to be out of compliance. The city’s code compliance officer, Meghan McKnight, had received numerous complaints regarding signs in the public right of way and sent notification to business owners that signs had to be moved or would be removed.

Kevin Veatch, owner of Andante Coffee, was one of the businesses to be served the notice. Andante has been in business for over a year now, but Veatch said signs still help to pull in non-regulars off the street.

“I notice a difference when we put a different sign out, over the next couple hours people will come in asking for things we’ve listed. A sign really affects how we attract people,” Veatch said. “Of course, people’s right of way shouldn’t be obstructed, and no one wants clutter. But it’s important for retailers.”

The problem with the businesses on Madison and Bjune is that the building has no setback next to the public sidewalk, making it impossible for businesses to advertise their goods and services to passersby with additional signage.

According to Cris Beattie, a former director of the Bainbridge Island Downtown Association, the sign ordinance has been a long-standing frustration for merchants.

“It is an ongoing issue and it’s exasperating for the merchants, especially because it’s not anything cut and dried,” she said. “The sandwich-board issue is really tough, we don’t have sidewalks that are conducive to pedestrians or signs.”

Through the Winslow Tomorrow process, Beattie said, some directional signage for downtown merchants was created at the ferry terminal and two additional Winslow Way locations. However, most downtown businesses off Winslow Way were were not mentioned, leading to some frustration for businesses farther down Madison.

“I understand that shopkeepers feel frustrated that there aren’t better ways to let people know where their businesses are,” council member Barry Peters said. “It’s premature to say there are any answers, but it involves striking a balance between avoiding littering our island with signs,and on the other hand helping people to find our shops and our restaurants and parks.”

The city’s sign code hasn’t been formerly reviewed since 1993, merely amended and added to over a period of time.

However, a revision to the sign-code ordinance has been mulled through the committee process before and was originally supposed to be part of Winslow Tomorrow’s design, though the specifics of that revision were never formally agreed upon.

City Code Compliance Officer Meghan McKnight admits that the current sign ordinance is a patchwork of regulations that cover the gamut of signage issues the city enforces on a regular basis.

“This code has been piecemealed for a few different sections (mainly political signs) over the past couple years and a comprehensive review would probably do it some good,” McKnight said in a release. “I would be pleased to work on reviewing and possibly updating the sign code, especially since being on both sides of the calls I recognize how far-ranging its impacts can be.”

This year, Bainbridge Island was one of 10 agencies across the country that participated in the National Sick of Signs campaign promoted by the American Association of Code Enforcement. Between May 19-25, all 10 agencies removed a total of 2,266 out-of-compliance signs. The gesture was aimed at highlighting how difficult it is to enforce sign codes and the manpower it takes to stay on top of sign ordinances.

“Regulating signs can take a lot of staff time, taking resources away from more crucial enforcement activities,” McKnight said in a release.

Veatch couldn’t agree more with McKnight’s assessment and feels the city would benefit more with a thorough review of the sign ordinance.

“The economy has been hard on us, and retailers need every little help they can get as far as making the public aware of their businesses,” Veatch said. “The argument against the ordinance is, why not, if it’s tastefully done why can’t we place a sign that would let people know we are here.”

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