Sometimes when it’s David vs. Goliath, a teapot gets broken.
Elaine Terman, owner of Elaine’s Tea Shoppe in West Toledo, has been embroiled for months in a battle with the city of Toledo about a sign — a conflict that has raised the issue of municipal code enforcement versus the treatment of small businesses in a city striving to appear more business-friendly.
At issue is a teapot-shaped sign Ms. Terman has placed on the grass between the sidewalk and the street in front of the tea shop at 3115 West Sylvania Ave.
“The city of Toledo is again harassing us about our teapot sign out front!” Ms. Terman wrote in a letter posted on Facebook and reposted by dozens of customers.
Ms. Terman moved her business from Sylvania Township back into Toledo in June. She had previously been in Toledo but spent nine years in the township.
“I was a little leery about moving back into Toledo because inspectors in Toledo versus Sylvania Township are a different story,” she said.
“I started hearing from customers about how hard it was to spot the shop,” Ms. Terman said, “So I had this teapot sign and I put it out there and I started hearing immediately that people saw it.”
But a neighboring business operator reported the sign to city inspectors, who told her it violated city law and had to go.
“I personally don’t see the need for all this nonsense over such a small issue, and neither do my customers,” Ms. Terman wrote last week in a letter to Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins. “They are up in arms, and have even offered to picket on my behalf over this unbelievable rigidity, ridiculous power play, and harassment of a reputable small business in Toledo.”
She also said the city administration blocked her attempt to make her case before the city’s board of zoning appeals, which has the power to grant a variance.
Chris Zervos, Toledo’s director of inspection, said Ms. Terman rejected other options he suggested to her in place of the sign’s illegal location.
“She has been offered three different alternates that she does not want to avail herself of,” Mr. Zervos said.
“We suggested a tree on Sylvania Avenue that detracted the line of sight, and is old and misshapen, could be cut down.”
He also suggested mounting the sign on her building, or asking the neighboring business owner to secure it below his sign, rather than keeping it on the grass strip, also known as the tree lawn.
“She sent a request to the board of zoning appeals and the staff declined to recommend it to the board because we don’t allow signs in the right-of-way, and that is very common across all municipalities,” Mr. Zervos said.
The city returned Ms. Terman’s $150 zoning appeals application fee — which it charges and usually keeps whether a business owner wins its case before the board or is denied.
District City Councilman Tom Waniewski said he is familiar with Ms. Terman’s conflict with the city.
“There are many businesses that have expressed discontent that they can’t put out these framed sandwich boards,” Mr. Waniewski said.
“One of my goals in 2014 is to get a sign district so that businesses can determine what signs they want and how they want to put them out, and that might alleviate a lot of Elaine’s concerns.”
In the meantime, Ms. Terman’s teapot sign remains defiantly — and illegally — placed on the grass strip out front, next to the curb.
Contact Ignazio Messina at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6171, or on Twitter @IgnazioMessina.