- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Some business owners in the town of La Plata feel pushed around, and they’re ready to shove back.
Frustrated by the town’s sign ordinance, several business owners, as well as representatives of University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center, met last week at the hospital to share their stories.
As Steve Scott of Scott Law Group LLC, which represents the hospital, said, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when the town’s Design Review Board raised objections to the hospital’s 75th anniversary banners placed on poles in the hospital’s parking lot two weeks ago.
Hospital President and CEO Noel Cervino said starting Jan. 25, the hospital was set to incur a fee of $100 per day for each of the 36 anniversary banners, although the ordinance allows for signs that are works of art or that do not carry commercial value. Charles Regional has filed an appeal with the town.
“The 75th anniversary of this hospital is significant for this town,” Cervino said. He said for the hospital to have to deal with the legal system in order to celebrate its 75th anniversary is ridiculous. The banners will be up for 90 days, Cervino said.
Paul Blackwood, vice president of planning at the hospital, said the hospital received a citation from Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in early January recognizing its 75th anniversary. On Jan. 23, the town notified the hospital that a resolution was passed to allow the banners, said Joyce Riggs, director of community development and planning for the hospital. The moratorium removed the hospital’s obligation to pay any fees for noncompliance with the ordinance.
“I think they have good intentions,” Scott said. “They want the town to look uniform and for there to be some controls and checks and balances.” Some of the issue that business owners are having with the ordinance, Scott said, is in the practice of the ordinance and how regulations are enforced.
Paul Bales is the co-owner of Casey Jones Restaurant. He said the Jan. 21 meeting was “not a knee-jerk” reaction to a recent event but a reaction to more than one event during the course of several years.
“This has been pervasive for years,” Bales said, adding that some business owners were not at the meeting because they feared retaliation in the future from the town if they spoke out.
Scott said he and the business owners understand town officials’ intent with the sign ordinance, but a way should be found to make the ordinance business-friendly. Also, regulations for retail and restaurant signs should be different than for doctor’s offices and law offices because the businesses have different signage needs. He said the town wants to attract more retail stores downtown and create “a friendly, walking environment.”
Bales said he has heard town Mayor Roy G. Hale say he thought the sign ordinance guidelines were “too rigid.” He said some business owners, including himself, have offered suggestions to town council about ways to change the sign ordinance that would make the ordinance more agreeable to business owners in town.
Karen Acton, publisher of the Maryland Independent, asked how the suggestions were received, and Bales said “eyes glaze over.” Keith Grasso, co-owner of Island Music Co., said the signs ordinance was quoted back to them.
Scott said the strict enforcement of the ordinance “tends to collide with what the business community sees as being flexible or reasonable.” To go before the Design Review Board costs business owners time away from their businesses, he said.
A lack of communication between the town’s staff and the Design Review Board was cited as a factor by several who attended the meeting, including Cervino. He said after three meetings with town staff during which no objections were raised about a new sign for a medical practice on Charles Street, a member of the design board later objected to the height of the new sign. Cervino said the sign’s height was in compliance with the town’s signs ordinance.
“I’m to the point with them that as long as what we have complies with the code we’re gonna go over there, we’re going to tell them what we’re doing,” Cervino said, “and then whether they like it or not, we’re going to put it up.” Cervino said this strategy is the only way to deal with the town in a businesslike manner.
Scott said the new sign was for a medical practice at 500 Charles St., and it was 12 feet tall. The design board said the sign should be 10 feet tall. Cervino said the hospital spent millions of dollars on opening the medical practice, and the practice opened without a sign to guide potential patients to its existence.
“What businessperson does that?” Cervino asked.
Robert Clancy, general manager at La Plata Fitness, experienced an issue with the design board when the fitness center recently modified the size of its sign from 240 square feet to 199 square feet so that it would be more what the design board wanted and what the signs ordinance states. The center was told it must notify the design board of any changes to signs, then the design board recommended 75 square feet.
“For our size building, it’s just way too small,” Clancy said of the sign. “It just disappears with the structure of a building that size.” Clancy said the fitness center’s sign was grandfathered in, and the struggle about the sign continues.
Deborah Taylor, co-owner of Charles Street Bakery, said that sort of thing is exactly why businesses will not come to Charles Street.
Scott said with other fitness centers in the area, it is important for La Plata Fitness to remain competitive with its signage and advertising. Clancy, who has been with the fitness center for four years, said it opened 14 years ago.
Keith and Nicki Grasso started Island Music in Solomons Island before moving their business to La Plata. The Grassos said their business attracts people from all across the East Coast. They offer music lessons, musical instruments and products, as well as repair of musical instruments.
“We like the idea of being a ‘main street mom and pop’ business,” Keith Grasso said. But the business has had sign problems with the town “every step of the way.” The business was shut down for two days in 2012 because the town insisted that a 1976 smoke detector in the ceiling be connected to the rest of the business’s smoke detector system. Keith Grasso said he just wants his business to create an atmosphere “and bring some flavor to the town.”
Bales said most of the business owners at the meeting had exchanged similar dialogue with the town repeatedly when it came to receiving warnings of signs ordinance violations. Clancy said such dialogue costs each business money with time and legal fees.
Deborah Taylor said she gave up trying to deal with the town 10 years ago after she was asked to remove a pink balloon hanging in front of her bakery in celebration of an employee who gave birth to a daughter.
“I won’t even go near that subject,” Taylor said.
Town Manager Daniel Mears said in a phone interview that the sign ordinance “provides consistent, effective signage throughout the town.” The ordinance was created along with the La Plata Vision Plan in 2001 and updated in 2010 with guidance from the La Plata Business Association. Members of the design board are residents and business community members who volunteer to serve and are selected by the town council.
The hospital’s anniversary banners were not compliant with the town’s signs ordinance because they are affixed to light poles, Mears said. The town council passed a resolution Jan. 21 allowing the banners through June 30. Mears said the goal of town ordinances is to administer them fairly and consistently throughout the community, and ordinances reflect the value of the community because they are created by community-based groups like the design board.
“To hear that the La Plata government is unfriendly to the business community is truly troubling and unfounded,” Mayor Hale said in an email statement, “since the town has worked for many years to improve our business community, and La Plata is a better place today than it was just a short decade ago.”
Hale operated a certified public accountant business in the town from 1987 to 2012 and said he sees why business owners find signage important, but the signs ordinance applies to the town as a whole, not individual businesses. The council appreciates regular input from the business community, and the hospital’s banners have encouraged the council to makes changes to the ordinance.
He said the town council understands the importance of signage for promotion of individual businesses. Restrictions on the size, number of signs, location and operation of electronic signs are appropriate for the town. Hale said “some business owners find these regulations too restrictive.”
The La Plata Business Association is inactive, despite an attempt by the town council in October to conduct a meeting and revive the group, Hale said. A second meeting is planned at 7:30 a.m. Feb. 4 at the town hall to revive the association, as well as “to provide a forum to discuss issues important to the town and the business community.”
“Our joint purpose is and should always remain making La Plata a better place to live, work and shop,” Hale wrote.
In an email statement, Ward II Councilman Keith Back said the town has made changes to the sign ordinance at the request of businesses and organizations, including the approval of three moratoriums to allow the hospital’s noncompliant signs.
“In addition, we are getting ready to look at numerous changes to the sign ordinance to work with the Hospital’s requirements,” Back wrote. “We have asked that anyone who has specific suggestions for improving the ordinance to bring their ideas to the town council.”
When the hospital changed its name last summer, Cervino said new signs were purchased for $250,000. Dialogue about the signs continued between the town and the hospital between March and July, and two weeks before the signs were placed, the mayor said the signs would not work, mainly because of their size. Cervino said the town passed a temporary moratorium on enforcing the law to allow the signs. Scott said patients must be able to find the hospital in case of an emergency.
“They let you go down this road, and then when it comes to the final act, which is to give you the permit, there’s always a problem,” Cervino said.