Last Sign Standing: Athens Restaurant Battles Code Enforcement

By Kyle MacArthur Wingfield

A little sign is catching big attention.

Ryan Myers, owner of Amici Cafe, said for years his restaurant used a sandwich board to market deals to the public.

“We have an A-frame sign we’ve been using for three years to advertise daily specials,” Myers said. “It generates money for not only us but the city in tax dollars. Whatever we put on this sign, it sells. The sidewalks create business for everybody.”

The sign did not become an issue until recently, according to Myers. A code enforcement officer would “come around once a year and tell us not to do it,” Myers said, “and that’s all you’d hear from them. We’d put the sign out, the code enforcer would come by, we’d take it in for a week, then put it out again. It became a battle, and we kept getting warnings.”

The warnings are the result of a sign ordinance passed by the Athens-Clarke County Commission in 2005 due to safety concern and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, Sarah Anne Perry wrote in Flagpole. The ordinance came to fruition due to a visually impaired man who was tripping over signs in the sidewalk and had threatened to sue, according to Perry.

The ACC government established that it is “unlawful for any person to direct, order, or instigate placing of signs in the public right-of-way,” according to Section 7-4-9 of the ACC Code of Ordinances.

A business usually receives two code violation warnings before consequences escalate, according to Mike Spagna, Community Protection Administrator for Athens-Clarke County. If the violation does not improve after the initial warnings, said Spagna, business owners are then brought before a judge.

Myers’ restaurant continued receiving warnings until his business was issued a citation to appear in court. “I get that,” he said. “You can only write so many warnings.” But Myers is determined to seek change in the county’s sign ordinance.

“I feel petty, getting wound up about it because it’s such a silly thing,” Myers said. “But it is such a silly thing. It’s a very grey area […] the code needs to be revised and revisited.”

Local business owners side with Myers. A recent survey conducted by the Athens Downtown Development Authority asked businesses for their thoughts on sidewalk sandwich boards. The ADDA received responses from 16 local businesses saying sidewalk signs have a positive impact on business.

Myers said sidewalk signs add to the Athens experience. “A lot of times, we’d put something funny on it that would make people look at it,” Myers said. The signs “give character to downtown; some people are funny with them. It allows you to see something.”

Athens business owners told the ADDA survey that sandwich boards are “creative and tasteful” and “add a charm downtown area.” Even owners who do not advertise with signs felt strongly that other businesses should be allowed to use them, so long as they are “reasonably sized and do not block pedestrian traffic.”

Amici’s sign sat flush against the building, according to Myers. “In no way does anybody have to change their pathway to get around it,” he said. “What they do have to change their path for is the railing, our café area.”

So Myers looked for ways around the ordinance. “We asked if we could move the sign into the doorway,” he said, “but that was still in the way.” Myers also questioned the code enforcer about removing a table and placing the sandwich board inside the railing of Amici’s dining area. “But they said no,” he said. “There was no way around it.”

A walk down Clayton Street Wednesday afternoon revealed multiple businesses with similar signs. The sandwich boards were placed in doorways, walkways, and inside the railings of restaurants and shops.

Athens local Ross Thomas, a junior at the University of Georgia, walked past a portable sign entering an Athens venue Tuesday. Thomas became heated when informed of the city’s sign ordinances.

“I think the city should spend time fixing broken and uneven sidewalks instead of fining honest businesses,” Thomas said. “A sign is a more visible obstacle than uneven cracks and curbs and presents a less physical danger.”

Amici’s sandwich board is currently in storage. “Part of me wanted to keep putting it out and just take the fines,” Myers said, “but I’m not sure what would happen if the sign were out again when we’ve already been ordered to court.”

Myers is awaiting the verdict of the court before placing the sandwich board on the sidewalk again. “The battle is being fought,” Myers said. “I don’t want to add fuel to the fire. I’ve been pretty vocal about my thoughts on it.”

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