Update sign, zoning laws

Elaine Terman said customers couldn’t see the sign on her West Sylvania Avenue tea shop, so she erected a sign on a strip near the street.
Elaine Terman said customers couldn’t see the sign on her West Sylvania Avenue tea shop, so she erected a sign on a strip near the street.

Toledo wages a constant battle against trashy signs that pop up on street corners and utility poles: cash for your home, mattress sale, pizza delivery. But the same zoning regulations that control these eyesores can keep small-business owners from placing attractive signs near the street outside their shops.

During last year’s campaign, Mayor D. Michael Collins pledged “a concentrated effort of outreach and assistance to small-business owners, the backbone of our community.” If the city wants to attract business, reinvent itself, and become a more appealing place to live, work, and shop, it must update its venerable zoning and sign laws, many of which go back to 1950 and were updated in only a piecemeal fashion over the past decade.

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The battleground in question is the small strip of land between the sidewalk and the street. That public-property right of way houses water, sewer, gas, and electrical lines, notes Chris Zervos, director of the Toledo Department of Inspection. It must be kept clear not only to maintain utility access, but also to keep from distracting drivers, he says.

Some small-business owners dispute that interpretation. John Bombrys, who owns an ornamental concrete business on West Alexis, accuses city bureaucrats of “picking on us little guys.” He says that for 15 years, he put a plastic sign in front of his store each day, taking it in at night.

Recently, city officials told him he was violating the city code because the sign covered several square feet of city property. He plans to put his sign out again in the spring, within his property lines.

Elaine Terman, who operates a tea shop on West Sylvania Avenue, says customers couldn’t see her building sign. She is fighting to keep the free-standing sign she placed in the right of way; the city says she must move it. She declined to pursue options the city offered, and said it wouldn’t be worth appealing the ruling if she isn’t granted a variance.

Collins administration spokesman Lisa Ward says Mrs. Terman is violating the law. If the city gave her a variance, Ms. Ward says, it would have to do the same for similar businesses.

Still, City Councilman Tom Waniewski says the sign law “has to change.” That could help enhance the West Sylvania corridor, he says.

Council member Sandy Spang says she and her colleagues “need to go through the sign ordinance, much of which was developed in the 1960s ... Whenever we have a small problem in Toledo, sometimes we look for the small fix.” Ms. Spang won her own zoning battle several years ago to place a logo on the awning outside her South Toledo coffee shop, Plate 21.

Mr. Zervos agrees that the city’s sign law is due for an overhaul. City government also needs to review its code enforcement practices, to accommodate small-business owners while preventing sign clutter.

Across the nation, urban planners are finding that old city codes that were developed to create a healthy separation between houses and smokestacks are obsolete. The greater need now is to provide city streets that not only are safe and comfortable to drive, but also create places that draw pedestrians.

A comprehensive review and update of Toledo’s sign and zoning laws can achieve these goals.