An amendment that would have banned sidewalk signs (also known as sandwich boards) for businesses on Main Street, Woodbine Avenue and Scudder Avenue in Northport Village was voted down 3-2 by board members following remarks from local residents and business owners at a public hearing this past Tuesday, November 1.
The public hearing regarding the proposed local law change started with remarks from the board, with all trustees – except Meghan Dolan – and Mayor Donna Koch explaining their positions on the code change. Trustee Dolan stated she’d rather wait until after hearing from the public before discussing the matter.
Trustee Ernest Pucillo argued that while resident concerns are important and valid, he has to look at the businesses’ perspectives, too. “I hate to eliminate something in the law without really researching it,” he said. The trustee focused on the existing code and current sidewalk sign allowances. “We have a lot of good provisions in the law, but our law did not take into account traffic during summer months, difficulty of passengers going into opposite directions and navigating that,” he said.
Trustee Dave Weber said sidewalk signs are no more unsafe than tree roots coming through the concrete and high curbs. He stated that the Village should look at enforcement as a starting point instead of jumping to a total ban. “If we don’t start with enforcement, we are really failing ourselves because we have the safety provisions already built into this code,” he said.
Noting his support of the ban, Trustee Joe Sabia said his “main concern is not a sign for a business” but for the elderly residents who walk the sidewalks downtown, as well as moms with strollers. “They’re not making your business better,” he told the crowd of business owners of the signs. “I think they’re more detrimental than they’re really worth.”
Mayor Koch said that being able to safely walk on Main Street is one of the biggest concerns people have in the Village. “The Village is liable for the sidewalks,” she stated. “I have to get rid of something and we’re going to start with the sandwich boards.”
The public had the opportunity to share their opinions and concerns about the proposed code change following the board’s comments. Seven residents spoke in favor of the sidewalk sign ban and ten business owners and residents spoke against the proposed amendment. Additionally, several speakers voiced their concerns about the safety of the sidewalks in general, and how the Village should work on moving toward achieving Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance.
Village resident Mary Silberstein said she could no longer walk the downtown sidewalks comfortably without the fear of falling from crowded walkways. Effie Huber and others agreed, stating that maneuvering around the signs is a safety issue, especially for older residents and those with disabilities.
Other residents questioned how a ban would be enforced, including Josephine Rizzoni who noted that the code as presently written is not being enforced. “It would be a priority if it goes my way,” Mayor Koch responded. Dennis Tennenbaum, a downtown landlord, said that business owners should use their windows to advertise, suggesting to the board that they “should pull every sign tonight.”
Many of the business owners who spoke at the hearing expressed concerns about reports of people having trouble navigating the streets, adding that their customers’ safety is important to them. “I want to be really clear that we care deeply about the health and well-being of our neighbors,” said Katheryn Laible of The Firefly Artists in a post-meeting conversation with the Journal. “We operate on a super tight margin in an historic Village that comes with all sorts of accessibility challenges, but we really do give it our best to make the space as welcoming and accessible to everyone as we can.”
Both Ms. Laible and Lindsay Ostrander of Salted. On the Harbor and The Wine Cellar on Main noted during the hearing that reasonable regulation and enforcement is a better way to make the sidewalks safer. Ostrander said that she’s been using sandwich boards in the Village for the ten years she’s been in business and has never been notified that there was an issue with the size or placement of her signs. “I think it’s very important that there’s more conversation between the Village and business owners,” she said.
Denise Glozek, the new owner of Changing Tides Consignment (formerly known as Helga’s), stated that if safety was really the issue, then all factors should be addressed. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that the board [of trustees] is immediately chopping the heads off of the retailers and the shops in town because it would appear that it might be the easiest or least expensive way.”
Lauren Engel of SweetArts and Stacey Massina of Village Kitchen & Tile Expo spoke about the benefits of sidewalk signs for new businesses. Both business owners stated that the signs work to get customers into their storefronts by drawing their attention to a business they may not have known existed. “Being a new business, you need every penny you can get,” Ms. Massina said.
At the end of public comment, Trustee Meghan Dolan noted that the board received only one letter from a resident regarding this issue prior to the meeting, so she felt it was important to listen to other residents and business owners before speaking. She explained that the Village already has mechanisms in place, in the code, to enforce the issues brought forth by the public. “To put a ban may be a little bit premature when we haven’t tried enforcement, and also speculative when there is no causation,” she said. No one is saying, she explained, that they were hurt specifically because of a sidewalk sign. She also noted that there’s no way to quantify the help that sandwich boards give to businesses, and that should be considered as well.
Finally, an issue touched on several times throughout the evening, but not elaborated on, was the plan to redo the sidewalks entirely this coming winter and spring, once National Grid is done installing new gas lines. “Certainly that is one step in a long line of things that we need to do to become ADA-compliant,” Trustee Dolan said of the imminent project. “Let’s look at the sidewalks then, and address them in a thoughtful way. The board can do better than the presented proposal,” she added.
The official board vote followed, and the proposed law change was rejected; Trustee Dolan, Trustee Pucillo and Trustee Weber opposed the amendment, and Mayor Koch and Trustee Sabia voted to approve it.
After applause from some audience members, Mayor Koch said, “I will ask you all, all the business owners that are here tonight, have one sign that adheres to the code.”
“I will take defeat,” she added, “but I’m asking you all to adhere to the code.”
After the vote, Ms. Laible reflected on the sidewalk signs and the decision to not eliminate them entirely.
“The signs matter,” she told the Journal. “They're crucial to the small businesses we hope to keep, part of the personality of the Village themselves, and also need to be applied in a way that is mindful of the people they intend to reach.” The signs provide gentle, welcoming encouragement to come inside and see what local merchants have to offer, she continued. “Removing them won't solve heavy pedestrian traffic or other issues, but may deeply hurt our neighbor business owners, who really do need all the support they can get… I’m glad to see trustees listening and am hopeful we can come up with good solutions together.”