Raleigh City Council divided over sign restrictions

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMay 11, 2014 

— It’s easy to pass by Louie Bowen’s Glenwood Avenue costume shop without noticing.

The only sign for Hughie & Louie’s sits on the facade of the strip mall, separated by trees and shrubs from the speeding traffic. Customers have to look for the Oak Park Shopping Center sign, which lists just one tenant, the Peddler’s Steakhouse.

“No one knows where our stores are,” said Bowen, an outspoken opponent of Raleigh’s sign rules. “The whole sign thing needs to be redone.”

Raleigh City Council members are divided on the issue. Some think a push to regulate signs inside storefront windows should prompt a broader review of Raleigh’s existing sign rules. But others – including Mayor Nancy McFarlane – want to limit the discussion to the proposed window restrictions, not to reopen a decadeslong policy limiting signs’ appearance in keeping with the city’s low-key image.

“I don’t think we have the staff to look at the whole sign ordinance right now,” McFarlane said at last week’s council meeting. “I don’t want to set up the false expectation that we are going to rewrite the sign ordinance.”

Greater Raleigh Merchants Association director Jennifer Martin doesn’t buy that argument. “The staff is paid by the tax dollars that are created by businesses and residents,” she said, adding that her group’s members want the wider review. “We found that it’s not working for today’s business, and it’s not working for the creativity of Raleigh.”

City Councilman Bonner Gaylord agrees. He’s one of three councilmen meeting this week to select 10 people to serve on a sign task force. He said he wants the committee to hear all sign-related concerns.

“This is going to cause a lot of problems if we say, ‘We’re not going to listen to you’ ... that we don’t care what’s wrong” with the rules, he said.

But Councilman Thomas Crowder said he’s not willing to change the current sign ordinance. He and other backers of the rules point to the large, brightly lit signs that dotted major Raleigh roads before the ordinance was created several decades ago.

“Our sign ordinance has served us extremely well,” Crowder said, adding that he doesn’t think the rules harm the local economy. “Our businesses have been relatively healthy given the economic climate we’ve had nationally.”

Crowder has spoken out in favor of the additional restrictions, which ban businesses from window signs that cover more than 30 percent of the glass. He says that would make Raleigh more attractive and make it easier for law enforcement to see inside businesses.

Councilman John Odom said that goes too far. “Inside of windows, to me, is cut and dry,” he said. “You shouldn’t be inside my business.”

City planners conducted an informal survey of 230 businesses throughout Raleigh and found that nearly a quarter would likely be in violation of the new rules. For Deco Raleigh, a boutique shop downtown, that could mean taking down a colorful image of the city’s skyline and drawings by a local artist whose book is for sale inside.

Pam Blondin, the shop’s owner, said focusing on the window signs is too narrow. “It feels like we’re piecemealing this whole thing,” she said. “I think that this is a great opportunity to start at ground zero and build something that really supports what we want our city to be.”

The full City Council will vote on the task force appointments at its next meeting, on May 20. The committee will then spend months gathering feedback from business owners and other Raleigh residents.

Bowen said she wants to be a part of the process. “When you start telling me what I can put in my window, that steps all over freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” she said.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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