The Coast News Group
Business owner Steve Amster stands in front of an A-frame sign promoting his business. He said the city unfairly cracks the whip on small businesses’ signs. In response, city staff said they don’t discriminate with code enforcement. Councilmembers will review the city’s sign ordinance at an undetermined date. Photo by Jared Whitlock

Business owner asks City Council to take a closer look at sign rules

ENCINITAS — Steve Amster, owner of Garden State Bagels, believes the city discriminates when it comes to promotional signs. 

The city cracks down on signs from small businesses like his, he said. Meanwhile, code enforcement turns a blind eye to illegal signs placed by real estate companies and large retailers.

“Why do they get special privileges?” Amster asked.

“They go after the little guy because we’re the low-hanging fruit,” he added. “I’ve seen it throughout the years.”

Amster, who was fined for an un-permitted, freestanding A-frame sign in front of his business, took his concern to City Hall last week. After speaking at a City Council meeting, councilmembers agreed to review signage rules at an undetermined date.

Kerry Kusiak, a senior planner with the city, noted officials from code enforcement will give councilmembers a general overview of the sign ordinance at a future meeting. From there, councilmembers have the option of asking that specific sign policies be brought back for consideration.

Kusiak said the enforcement rules are applied across the board, regardless of the type or size of the business.

“Large or small businesses — there’s no difference to us,” Kusiak said.

He noted the city has the authority to instantly yank un-permitted signs in the public right of way. But for those signs on private property that need a permit, the city will send warning letters.

After that, if the owner doesn’t comply, the city can levy fines of $100 for the first incident, $200 for the second and $500 for the third and any subsequent incidents.

Depending on the type of sign or banner, businesses have to go through different application processes. For example, some signs affixed to the ground require that a permit be submitted and they must also go through design review.

Kusiak said the city has a complaint-based system for enforcement.

“We don’t go around checking every sign to make sure it’s in compliance,” Kusiak said. “The city responds to complaints it gets from residents accordingly.”

Switching to proactive enforcement “hasn’t come up in quite some time,” because “it’s expensive,” Kusiak said.

The city currently has two fulltime employees and one part-time employee in charge of not only code enforcement for signs, but also other matters like illegal buildings.

Carlsbad, among other cities, also cites those breaking sign rules after receiving complaints, rather than active enforcement, according to Patricia Crescenti, administration secretary with the city of Carlsbad.

“We have the exact same system,” she said.

On that note, Amster said he’s “going to play the city’s game.”

For years, Amster has gazed at the same real estate signs on El Camino Real. He bets many of them don’t have a permit and plans on filing a host of complaints with the city in the coming week.

“Commercial real estate signs are all over El Camino Real — many shouldn’t be there,” Amster said.

Amster also noted he has noticeably more customers when his signs are out in front of his shop.

“The signs mean selling more bagels,” Amster said.

For the 2012-13 fiscal year, the city received 88 complaints over illegal signs. In 2011-12 there were 102 and 87 in 2010-11. However, those numbers don’t include complaints filed in response to campaign signs.

1 comment

Stand up for your rights! August 4, 2013 at 1:02 am

The City of Encinitas practices selective enforcement in its Code Enforcement, including enforcement of Encinitas Municipal Code with respect to sign law. City Attorney Glenn Sabine’s partner in his lawfirm, Sabine & Morrison is Randal Morrison, a so-called “expert on sign law.” Last year Morrisson recommended that the City do away with the public’s right to apply for permits for banners on “public infrastructure,” which would have eliminated the annual banner program, Arts Alive, put on by the Artists’ Colony.

Morrison insisted that once ANY public signs are allowed in the public right of way, then the City could not control “political speech,” because a “limited public forum” was then opened up. Well, art banners and artistic expression in the public right of way has been the tradition in our City since its inception. Morrison wanted CONTROL, over freedom of expression. Fortunately, Council didn’t take Morrison’s recommendation.

But Steve Amster’s issue is about commercial signage, which does have more limitations imposed by the City. Amster makes some excellent points. But the City ALSO needs to reform its “campaign sign laws,” because political speech is protected on private property all year long. The city cannot restrict campaign signs on residential property, as it now does, to only a month before an election. Also, the City should not restrict signs in Council Chambers by the public to 8 1/2 inches by 11 inches on “flexible paper,” when it has a large banner on the wall behind Council’s dais. As long as people are not obstructing other audience member’s view, and as long as sticks or wires are removed from signs, larger signs should be allowed, particularly if the sign is to be displayed during oral communications or when a public speaker is addressing an agenda item, and displays the sign at the speaker’s dais.

Moreover, many public easements in this city, such as sidewalks, are technically part of private property to which they are adjacent. The public has a right to pass over the property, unobstructed, but the City often does not OWN these easements. They are public EASEMENTS (as opposed to private alleys, that are not throughways, and are not city maintained), subject to ADA requirements, but people who lease or own the property should be allowed to place signs, with some limitations, on their private properties.

Former Mayor and Council Member Dan Dalager would have MANY lawnmowers and equipment, serving to advertise his family’s lawnmower sharpening shop, out on the sidewalk. A “sandwich board” sign advertising Mr. Amster’s bagels seems innocuous, and should be permissible.

Was Steve. Amster the one who complained about a Deputy Sheriff illegally parking his motorcycle near Amster’s bagel shop, so that business there was negatively impacted? If so, I feel there is some reprisal going on here. Our City officials, bureaucrats and their contractors, as well as city staff have become infamous for their vindictiveness.

Also, certain campaign signs, such as No on Prop A signs, were allowed to be put up near the library, within the public right of way, while the City “looked the other way.” Council should put sign law on the Agenda, again, and iron out some of these issues. I hope Randal Morrison will not be paid again, as a consultant, to come in with an expensive report, charing the public for every hour he waits to speak, before that agenda item is heard.

I suggest Mr. Amster consider contacting the Institute for Justice, which helps small businesses and individuals fighting against abridgments of our Constitutional rights, including his right to place signs when other entities are allowed to place similar signs in similar locations. That’s part of all of our rights of free expression, and public enterprise.
Institute for Justice
901 N. Glebe Road, Suite 900
Arlington, VA 22203

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