Troubled signs for local small business owners

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:54

    SPARTA-The first signs of trouble have come in the mail or with a simple knock on the front door, when the township planning department comes calling on local businesses to remove portable advertisements from outside their storefronts. Some small business owners are not happy with the township's "sign police," who have been enforcing a law that prohibits the display of portable advertisements within Sparta's borders. Local entrepreneurs claim the ordinance detracts from business and jeopardizes their ability to remain in the township. Kathryn Kaplan, who has owned and operated Garlic & Oil on Newton-Sparta Road for the past 2 ½ years, said her "A-frame" sign usually places along the curb doesn't adhere to a township ordinance amended by the council last year to regulate advertisement signs. Kaplan is a freelance writer for the Township Journal, a newspaper owned by Straus Newspapers, the parent company of The Sparta Independent. "It wasn't the prettiest thing in the world," said Kaplan. "But it wasn't an eyesore." Instead, Kaplan was told that she could use portable advertisements outside her business near the Upper Lake entrance to Lake Mohawk only if they were consistent with township-dictated designs and guidelines. Kaplan learned that a new sign would cost about $800, require a $25 annual fee to the township, and a visit before the planning board for approval. So far, she hasn't been able to obtain floor blueprints from the building's developer to support her promotional plans. "For a small shop to spend $800 on a sign is ridiculous," said Kaplan, who moved her business after struggling for a year on Main Street. "The town is taking away anything left for me to attract business." Kaplan said she is dependent on Garlic & Oil as her primary source of income. She said the cost of purchasing a new sign is equivalent to selling 250 jars of barbecue grill sauce over the course of a year. "Every day is a challenge," she said. "I make my living doing this. If people can't get here, I'm out of business. I have to now hope that someone drives by and notices the store. Otherwise, there's no other way to let someone know I exist." The township council passed the ordinance in November 2004 to regulate the placement of portable signs in the interest of public safety and for the visual aesthetics of the commercial districts. Prior to the ordinance, portable signs were not permitted in town. Township manager Henry Underhill said a committee including township officials and local merchants took part in a study to adopt measures for displaying signs. The planning board and township council approved their recommendations. "The study came up with a way for vendors to advertise special sales," said Underhill. "The signs have to be in certain places and uniform so that there is not a hodgepodge." Mayor Alish Hambel said the ordinance received little public dispute at the time it was passed. The Gathering Place, a small coffee shop on Main Street owned and operated by the Sparta Presbyterian Church since June, also faced the township's portable advertisement enforcement. "The ordinance doesn't seem very friendly to small businesses," said Keith Keoppel, a part-time director of pastoral care at the church who helps maintain the store across the street. Koeppel said when the coffee shop was told to remove its sign out front, the church went to a local business charged with designing the township templates. He said the church was not prepared to part with $800 for a new sign because a good portion of the proceeds from the coffee shop support local charities and much more. "We sell coffee, but that's incidental," he said. "We're trying to create a non-threatening atmosphere for someone who may not go to a church, but may need to come here for fellowship." Kaplan said enforcement of the ordinance has not been consistent throughout the township, citing portable advertisements along Woodport Road. A full-time zoning officer, a former Sparta police officer who recently retired, monitors the sign ordinance and similar building codes and regulations. Messages to the planning department were not returned. The ordinance permits one portable advertisement not to exceed 27'' x 48.'' Failure to comply with the ordinance results in confiscation of the sign and a $50 penalty for its return. Chicken Done Right has one of the prototype signs featuring a "Shop Downtown Sparta" logo placed outside its storefront on Newton-Sparta Road. Portable signs may only be in place during business hours. Kaplan said the new design isn't practical for her use because it's too heavy to bring indoors before closing. "I love Sparta, I love my customers," said the local resident. "I need the town to be supportive to help me bring in more business. It's their obligation."