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Sign Laws Signal More Bad News for Businesses : Regulations: Ordinances in Solana Beach and Encinitas have merchants, already facing hard times, defending the way they display their names.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As if the economy wasn’t already bleak enough, Donald Hoffmann sees another bad sign looming over his Solana Beach pharmacy.

The problem, it seems, is the sign itself.

For years, the 30-foot-high “Solana Beach Pharmacy” sign has been the beacon of his small business along Highway 101, alerting motorists below with advertisements about the beer, wine and lottery tickets that can be purchased within.

Under a city sign law passed in October, however, Hoffmann and more than 37 other Solana Beach business owners have been cited and ordered to dismantle any sign that doesn’t meet the new standards. Though the law was passed in October, the deadline for compliance continues to be pushed back.

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For many small businessmen like Hoffmann--many who have seen fewer and fewer customers during the recent months of recession--the city’s new get-tough war on signs could not have come at a worse time.

“Mine is the highest sign,” said Hoffmann. “It’s nice. It’s attractive. And I just spent about $6,000 to refurbish it a couple of years ago. And now they want me to spend another couple thousand dollars to have it taken down. It’s just not fair.”

Solana Beach isn’t the only North County city taking a magnifying glass to the small print on its sign ordinance.

Recently, real estate agents in Encinitas have complained to city officials that sheriff’s deputies have become overzealous in enforcing a law that keeps “Open House” signs off public property.

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Frustrated businessmen in both cities say the current controversies are just a sign of the blue economic times.

“These officials have got to get their act together,” said one frustrated Encinitas realtor. “To pass a law is one thing. But to enforce it to such a maddening extent is just plain crazy--writing tickets for real estate signs. What’s gotten into these officials’ heads? Has the lousy economy taken that much of a toll?”

In Solana Beach, good humor is in even shorter supply.

Recently, more than 2 dozen small businessmen came before the council recently to express their frustrations over the law. They operate concerns such as coffee shops, hotels, clothing stores, restaurants and liquor stores. And they were all angry.

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After almost two hours of hearing their concerns, the council decided to go back to the drawing board on the issue, asking City Manager Michael Huse to research a possible extension of the deadline of the sign law. The council will reconsider the issue Jan. 6.

The new ordinance, which limits the size, location and height of signs, has affected all sorts of businesses throughout the North County coastal community--along Highway 101 and Lomas Santa Fe and in Eden Gardens.

One of the most stringent requirements, businessmen say, is the height limit that would force them to move their signs so low to the ground that parked cars would block them, rendering them useless.

Others say they would eventually replace older signs through the upcoming redevelopment of the Highway 101 business corridor in Solana Beach. Replacing the signs now, they say, would only mean replacing them again in a few more years once exact redevelopment plans are fixed.

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Councilwoman Marion Dodson has been in favor of extending the deadline on the new law all along--especially after hearing the personal stories Monday night.

“One new coffee shop owner wasn’t even able to put up a sign under the dictates of the new ordinance. Without a sign, how is he going to survive?,” she said. “And, under the new height requirements, the Santa Fe Christian School’s sign along the freeway will be so short, passing cars won’t even be able to see it.”

Monique Rodriguez, the co-owner of a travel agency, echoed the sentiments of many small businessmen when she said that the new law could also put many of them out of business.

“Business is just so bad right now,” she said. “To force small businessmen to replace signs at their own expense is just bad timing. It’s terrible timing. Because right now, many of us are just trying to keep alive.”

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City officials have acknowledged that the new law is primarily directed against the signs along the Highway 101 business strip--which come in a often-obtrusive array of shapes, sizes, colors and tastes.

“There is a hodgepodge of signs along that strip, and that’s what the council was reacting to,” Dodson said.

The councilwoman, however, who owns children’s clothing stores in Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe, said she voted against the ordinance because of the timing.

“With the council, there seems to be this urgency to make sure this problem is taken care of as quickly as possible,” she said. “You’ve got the council saying this has got to be done, you’ve got to spend this money--with the economy in the bad shape that it’s in.

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“If you were a small businessman, what would you do? But the way they’ve done this, they’ve just given these people too short a fuse to work with. I see no reason, in this type of economy, to put this added pressures on already-pressed businesses.”

City officials at first wanted to set new limits for billboards as well but were told that these fall under state jurisdiction, and that they would have to purchase the billboards themselves in order to do away with them.

Don Hoffmann said he’s all for the City Council setting guidelines for visible changes such as new shopping malls, but that signs that have been around for decades should be left standing.

“They’re saying they want everything to be all brand new, all at once,” said Hoffmann, 56, who bought the 60-year-old pharmacy two years ago.

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“But some things already standing should be left that way, I think. Especially until business improves and people can come up with the money to do something.”

Ruth Frymann rents out several stores in a strip mall known as Hang-Up Square along Highway 101. She says the city ordinance not only would force her half-dozen tenants to replace many of their smaller signs, but also require her to dismantle the mall sign as well.

It’s a big sign, she admits, a converted old Texaco gas station sign that she has spent many years and many dollars keeping spiffy and spit-shined.

“The city thinks my sign is ugly,” she said. “But it’s not ugly to me. Actually, I think it’s pretty good looking, I mean as pole signs go.”

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In Encinitas, following the expressed concerns of real estate agents, a subcommittee has been appointed to review the city’s sign ordinance and make suggestions to the City Council.

“The whole thing revolves around the ‘Open House’ signs,” said Patrick Murphy, the city’s community development director. “You can put them out, but they have to be on private property.

“If not, the city has the right to remove them, and we’ve been doing that. This law has been around for some time. It’s no news to real estate agents.”

Nonetheless, some real estate agents say that following the law to its letter has not won officials any new friends.

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Some say the enforcement, which includes one real estate agent’s receiving a $230 ticket, is the work of one deputy. Others say the law should be revised.

“It’s crazy,” said one real estate agent, who asked not to be named. “We know the signs aren’t supposed to go in the public right of way. But sometimes it’s hard to know where the public right of way begins and the private property ends.

“The feeling is we’re being picked on. I don’t care how bad the times are. The city should find itself another cash cow.”


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