Town urges businesses to comply with sign ordinance

$100-a-day fines face scofflaws

By Mal Boright

Williston zoning administrator D. K. Johnston is gently but firmly reminding businesses that they must comply with the town’s rules governing signs.

Johnston said he intends be proactive in making sure that businesses are in step with the sign ordinance.

“It doesn’t do a lot of good to have a review and permitting process with which to make the town and developments attractive and then have signs that are not in compliance,” Johnston said.

Johnston is concerned about a potential domino effect if the rules are not enforced. He said once a few businesses have signs that are not permitted by the ordinance, then others will start appearing, some made by companies and sold to businesses without going through the permitting process.

On the job for two months, Johnston said he is going to use a velvet glove approach with businesses using non-permitted signs. He has already found businesses willing to comply once he visits.

“Most people have been cooperative once I am able to find them,” he said.

One of those was Mike Ather, manager of Gardeners’ Supply Outlet. Ather had put up a sandwich board sign visible from Harvest Lane to compensate for not having a sign on that side of the building.

Under the ordinance, sandwich board signs can only be used to advertise temporary events such as a restaurant lunch specials or retail store sales. The ordinance mandates that sandwich board signs must be removed at close of business each day and are limited to one per lot.

“He (Johnston) was probably right when he told us we could not use it as we were,” Ather said. “I have no problem with it.”

Actually Ather had his problems with the sandwich board itself. “We spent $600 on it. Winds kept blowing it over and getting it when it snowed was a problem,” he said.

Ather said that Johnston showed him how to solve his signage problem by making space for one on the building itself.

Another type of sign that Johnston believes is finding more non-permitted use is the neon variety.

“The only neon sign allowed is one that says “open,” Johnston said. “And these are supposed to be turned off when the business is closed.”

He said beer companies and others give free neon signs to businesses that sell their products. “If we don’t contain this in the early stages, it becomes a trend,” Johnston said.

Johnston admits that the 23-page sign ordinance can be confusing. Since it was written in 1990, the ordinance has been amended 17 times.

“The amendments are often responses to specific issues, and when they are inserted into the ordinance they are fine on their own,” he said. “But they can be confusing with something else in the code.”

Johnston was reluctant to talk about penalties for businesses that don’t comply after he visits and sends warning letters. But he acknowledged that the ordinance does permit fines for businesses that refuse to comply.

He said fines start at $100 and go up with each violation. Each day the non-permitted sign appears is a new violation.

But Johnston said he is not eager to start levying fines. He’d prefer to work cooperatively with businesses.

“I’ll go and talk with the business owner, and when I do I’m told, ‘Yes, that makes sense,’” Johnston said.

He also sends businesses or property owners warning letters that describe the violation and gives them five days to fix it.

Johnston said he understands that some businesses have issues with less visible locations where signs are needed so customers can find them.

"There are provisions in the code to help out in a permitted way,” Johnston said.

Another business recently visited by Johnston was the Williston Antique Center, also on Harvest Lane.

“The visit was fine with us,” said owner Gail Savage. “We are going to try and get on a state sign. She also raised the possibility of a permitted directory sign.

Johnston will be making the rounds over the next few weeks. He said businesses have a right to appeal sign ordinance decisions to the town’s Development Review Board.