Aspen cracks down on signs around North Mill retail area
July 29, 2011
ASPEN – Some retailers in the North Mill Station commercial complex are upset over a new push by the city of Aspen to enforce its sign regulations.
The city’s Community Development Department hired a part-time enforcement officer about a month ago and is cracking down on sandwich boards and other types of signs in the development anchored by Clark’s Market. At least one business, Sabra’s Deli, received an official citation last Monday; however, it amounted to a warning and no fine was attached.
Daniel Ferguson, Sabra’s owner-operator, said he loses up to $200 a day in gross sales by not being allowed to put a sandwich board in the privately owned walkway in front of his deli, which specializes in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern lunch and dinner fare.
“The city has come to a decision to eliminate sandwich boards here [at North Mill],” Ferguson said. “I don’t know what it’s founded on, but I think it’s ridiculous. They are not on a public sidewalk, and there’s a very wide passage for people to walk through without running into the sign. In my mind, you have a bunch of people sitting in a room and writing the rules who are blind to the circumstances, financial or otherwise.”
He said earlier this year the city provided advanced notice that it would start enforcing the rules. Still, the rules are unfair, Ferguson said.
“Even if [the reason for the crackdown] is an aesthetic thing, it’s not very valid. I have a nice artist-made sign; it’s not a big bulletin you’d see in big cities, and it’s not taking away from the character of the area,” he said.
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“I feel like if I can’t have my right of speech, I may have to close shop if I can’t meet my numbers. Businesses are in a precarious situation right now. There aren’t enough tourists. Food costs have risen. I have to be able to support my family.”
Last fall, the city completed an extensive overhaul of its sign ordinance and reduced the number of allowable sandwich boards in the commercial core and other commercial-zoned areas under the premise that they were cluttering the public sidewalks and pedestrian malls. But the North Mill Station is not located in the commercial core and its signage issue is not related to that rewrite, according to city planner Drew Alexander.
Alexander said the North Mill retail development near Aspen’s post office has a different type of zoning – it’s a mix between neighborhood/commercial (NC) and service/commercial/industrial (SCI) – and sandwich boards simply aren’t allowed in those zones. The regulation pre-dates last year’s sign-ordinance rewrite and has not changed, he said.
“The two zones that allow sandwich-board signs are the commercial core (CC) and commercial (C-1),” he said. “Even then, the regulations for sandwich boards in those zones are stringent. The sign code does not allow for those signs in any other zone.”
Alexander said a City Council work session to assess how the sign code is working is being planned and likely will be held in September. He said he encourages any business with questions about the city’s rules to call him at 429-2739 and add their name to a list so that they can speak up during the work session.
Enforcement of the rules, within any zoned district, was a discussion topic during the City Council process last year to amend the ordinance regulating signage, he said.
“It’s always been a challenge for us to get a consistent level of enforcement in the community. We were finally able to get a part-time code enforcement officer and now we are able to get a consistent level of enforcement, which we had missed for several months,” Alexander said. “Due to the staffing that Community Development had, the enforcement was mainly complaint-driven.”
Stepping up enforcement and rewriting the code were “common goals” for the council and city staff, crafted with input from businesses, Alexander said.
“We did outreach to businesses and held two open houses at City Hall,” he said. “We tried to do our best effort on getting the public and businesses involved.”
Jeff Watkins, the property manager for North Mill Station – also incorrectly known in the community as the “Puppy Smith Building” – said several retail businesses there were warned about the pending crackdown on sandwich boards.
“I’ve got some buildings in town where it seems a bit more applicable,” he said. “We were all a little taken by surprise down here [at North Mill] that they wanted to prohibit us like that. I think most of the tenants tried to plead with them because it’s a tough economy and they didn’t want their businesses to be inhibited.”
Watkins said he tries to support his tenants in any way possible, but he hasn’t gotten involved in lobbying the city and representing their cause.
“It’s basically the tenants’ prerogative to respond to the issue,” he said.
Tim Boyer of Take Two Video, which also sits in the North Mill Station, has a signage issue with the city that doesn’t pertain to sandwich boards. He said officials have told him his window sign that lets people know he’s “open” is out of compliance with city code, but no one has been able to point to the language that addresses his particular sign, which is LED-lighted.
The sign had a flash-movement feature that made it more noticeable but using it put him out of compliance with city sign rules. He doesn’t use that element of the sign anymore and it’s easily switched off, he said.
“From the parking lot, even with the door open, it doesn’t look like anyone’s here,” Boyer said. “Having a lit sign in the window is paramount to people seeing that I’m here.”
Boyer said he printed out the sign code and studied it to ensure his sign met the rules. Still, he said, city staff contend there’s something out of kilter, although they aren’t specific.
“They kept saying something about the sign having ‘too many points of light,’ but they can’t find anything,” Boyer said. “They don’t come down here alone anymore – they come in pairs because we’re a little hostile.”