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Signs, signs (possibly) signs

Steve Campbell

Steve Campbell

I’ve been pondering the dilemma of the Beach Bum sign. That’s not a sentence you will read just anywhere.

This is a truly vexing problem, which I’ve been breaking down in my mind ever since it surfaced. I can tell you up front that I have no stand on this, and I’ll tell you why. If you can sort it out, you should get a special award for people who can solve problems that can’t be solved.
The basics are: Business erects a colourful sign; council says it has a bylaw that forbids this; sign owner says she didn’t know there was such a law; council says the sign must fit the heritage image of the town; sign owner asks for a deputation – the day before this column goes to press – after protesting the decision, not knowing that you had to apply for a deputation first time around.

There are so many balls in play here that, if we had money like we did in the Old Days, we would hire a $50,000 consultant to sort it all out, and we’d all go home and watch TV.
This is one of the very few times I’m glad I’m not a councillor. This is a Solomon-like decision, which has so many ‘on the other hand’ aspects, it’s nearly impossible to find the right path. Hence the nearly-split vote first time around. So let’s break it down.
A store owner decides to freshen the look of their shop. They have a marketing idea and, since they sell beachwear, they want something bright and attractive that says: “This is what we do.” By business standards, this is a great plan. In fact, it follows the mantra of every single marketing professional, business consultant, and even the advice of all the government agencies who offer support for small businesses.
So far so good. Everybody’s happy, from the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs all the way down to Beach Bum. Another sentence you will not see anywhere.

So why is there trouble in River City?
Turns out the County has a bylaw in which signs need to reflect the heritage feeling of the town, within a specified area of the downtown core. They ruled that this sign did not follow that criteria, so must be removed.
The shop owner claimed, since she did not live in the County, she did not know this bylaw existed. But ignorance of the law, sadly, is no defense. To her credit, I didn’t know it existed either, but that’s my fault too. I think many of us break laws we didn’t know existed because, frankly, we just can’t keep up.

So here’s the quandary for Council: The sign is not offensive but, if they grant an exception, they will set a precedent which will basically neuter the power of the bylaw itself. If they ban it, they become the arbiters of what is acceptable as ‘heritage’ in the town of Picton, and what is not.
These decisions would need to be done on a case-by-case basis. As a designer of many signs – many of them hideously modern and colourful – I find it tough enough to please the client, much less a council room full of people who want to add their say, based on their concepts of ‘acceptable’.
So what went wrong? I have the answer to this: The premise is wrong. If the premise is wrong, all of the fruits of the seed will cause problems.

Here’s how I stand on that.
I had a discussion with a councillor back when the concept of a ‘noise bylaw’ reared its ugly head. At the time, there was an issue with possible sound from Fields on West Lake, and another complaint from a neighbour about a one-day outdoor music event at Northport. It only takes two such things to drive officials to sharpen their legislation-writing pens, in the interest of the public good.
I pointed out that legislation is always built on the concerns of the few, but affects the many. In other words, if you build legislation to target specific incidences, you inadvertently open a Pandora’s Box of complainers. Everyone who has a dog next door, or hears a car with muffler problems, or party music at a neighbour’s birthday gathering, will jump all over the law. And that’s the first place they will turn.
Gone are the days when we would talk to our neighbours – move the dog inside at night; fix your muffler – now we go to bylaw officers, police and lawyers. Way better than reasonable personal discussion and possible compromise.

In the sign issue, that’s where everything got muddy. I’m big on heritage, and preserving our way of life, as you well know. But this is a bylaw that maybe should not have been built in the first place.
Every business owner in the County is different. Different plans and goals, expectations and approaches. We are not Niagara-on-the-Lake; we do not rubber stamp ‘acceptability’.
So. The bylaw is there. Who gets to decide? By doing the right thing – protecting heritage – Council has accidentally placed itself in a position where they – or their staff – are the judges of personal taste and aesthetics.

But wait! They have a written standard of what is ‘heritage’ and what is not! Sorry, no. They don’t. I know County history more than most, and the evolution of every town and village here has been a random hodge-podge of styles, changing and morphing along with generational tastes. Which ‘heritage’ do we get to choose? 1898? 1962?
Heritage is created because it is what it is, when it is. This does not mean it should be an open field for any wacky thing that comes along. But a bylaw is not the answer. Check it? Maybe. Rule it? No.
This approach may have prevented some of the blocky brick constructs that blot the allegedly heritage landscape of Picton’s Main Street, like all of the bank buildings and our beautiful Post Office Box. I didn’t hear any voices from councillors blocking the whims of those financial giants.
Which brings me to my last word on this: Council seems to have an unusual relationship with County business owners. After all of that ‘one hand/other hand’ stuff I just mentioned, this seems to be our relationship with Council as well.

On the one hand, they hire a Community Development Officer to build existing businesses and attract more. They even adjust permit fees to attract businesses to establish here. This is a good thing.
On the other hand, they seem to have little regard for the plain and simple fact that it is really hard to be a business in Prince Edward County, and very few of us are rolling in money. We do it because we love it, and because we do it well.
If you were to ask an established County shop owner what you could do to help, most of us would say: “Get out of our way.”

Filed Under: News from Everywhere ElseSteve Campbell

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  1. Cindy says:

    Love that last sentence, Gary. I may have to use it in my next meeting with the Heritage Committee and planning. They kind of put the cart before the horse in that they enact a plan but have no funding program (like most communities with a heritage district) to help business owners comply.

  2. Gary says:

    I somewhat agree in particular that the bylaw is flawed. It should work with folks rather than defining dimensions, colour etc. I don’t think an Advisory Committee should be given more power, particularly one that may have persons who only see Heritage and are ignorant to the costs placed on the owner. Also I do not agree that the brick church demolition was reckless. It was a brick building, we have many. It was not accessible, required great restoration and was an energy vacuum. What was the owner expected to do? All the screamers and criers over that building never would have put up the $$ necessary. And the Municipality sure wouldn’t. You can’t place Heritage on an owner and walk away. It will never work that way.

  3. Steve Campbell says:

    Lots of good comments here. It seems to boil down to Preservation vs. Progress, but it’s not as simple as that.
    Quite right, the destruction of the church woke us up to potential reckless activities of property owners and, right again, we can’t let our streetscape be degraded by similar reckless activity.
    The problem, as I stated at the Council meeting is in the faulty bylaw itself. You simply cannot legislate heritage. As usual, the bylaw focuses more on specific dimensions, and payment of permit fees, than it does on heritage. One councillor suggested trimming the BB sign to bring it a couple of percentage points smaller in size. This gives you a sign that doesn’t look as good as the original, but fits the rulebook. This is ridiculous. But that’s what legislation does.
    Why is the Planning Committee in charge of these decisions? Because it is there to enforce the bylaw. Nothing else.
    Would it not be a better idea to have the Heritage Committee review possible sign installations, and work with the business owner to perhaps create a better, more fitting sign? This is the way we used to do things, and damn the permit fees, which are just a money grab. Business owner does all the work for the sign, pays all the bills, and Council does nothing but put its hand out for easy cash.
    It may already be too late to save the street. As a couple of people pointed out, there is indeed a hodge-podge of grandfathered signs. And you can bet that if Burger King wants in, they will get what they want.
    The fault again is in the bylaw … whether you are accepted or targeted depends on how much clout you have. This is the mark of a bad law.
    And it’s not the fault of the Heritage Committee. It’s just that their vain attempt to help us all protect our image was transformed into a rigid tool, passed to County staff to implement, and attacks a sign that seems to be fair and reasonable to everyone.

  4. signing out says:

    Unless there is a written qualification of what storefront signs should adhere to within the Heritage Area of Picton, businesses should be able to put up any type of sign they feel appropriate. Jury by personal opinion leads to a “figure skating” kind of judging where it’s not based on criteria but by committee members opinions and bias.

  5. Marnie says:

    If you tear down all of those inefficient old buildings and put up a string of little boxes on Main Street what character will Picton have? Tourism offers jobs but what appeal will the town have for tourists if the history is gone? All of us who live in the town and county have an investment in it. Picton has been named one of the top ten places to visit in Ontario and there is a photo of the Regent accompanying the magazine article that reports this distinction. It would not have much impact with a photo of one of our modern banks or our efficient post office.

  6. Gary says:

    A lot of yester year was built in not so efficient means. Of course they had what they had to work with. Restoring can be money pits. Shire Hall has cost a small fortune and is still inefficient as a structure and as an administration building. Look at what is being undertaken to salvage the Royal Hotel. Millions upon millions. We need to be very careful in telling people what they can and cannot do with their properties, especially when those doing the telling do not have a nickel invested.

  7. wevil says:

    i think heritage is being taken to far.your heritage is driving work away from here.heritage is all fine until there is nothing left in the county,i want to live for today not yesteryear

  8. hockeynan says:

    The dude who spoke from the heritage was something else.He didn’t even know enough to take off his cap.

  9. Cindy says:

    You can’t tell me that council would have any power to tell McDonald’s to tone down its golden arches, grandfathered in or not….as well as any other big business. What bothers me is that the LCBO did not have a permit to erect their sign at their temporary location. Apparently, no complaint equals no permit required. One complaint about our sign got this whole thing started. The fact that there are thousands of supporters does not matter.

    Thanks, Steve for your words last night. Much appreciated.

  10. Gary says:

    Doesn’t Council have more important issues to deal with than causing problems for a 25 year business.

  11. Fred says:

    I drove thru tonight to purposely look at signs. It’s a dogs breakfast. Some huge, some big, some small, some ugly. The Beach Bum is tasteful in my old eyes.

  12. Paul Cole says:

    You would think existing signage would be grandfathered in and new signs would have to adhere to the new bylaw. Heritage designations were created because of what happened to the Methodist church on Main St. and protect the historic feel of Pictons Main St it has to start somewhere.

  13. Dennis Fox says:

    Tell me, what will Council do if either Tim Hortons or Esso want to change the size of their signs? Say no because they don’t meet their heritage standards – or is this sigh by-law for only those they can control? It shouldn’t be.

  14. Fred says:

    I thought we were to have live streaming of Council by now so we can watch these antics.

  15. Susan says:

    Very good points Chris. Council is worried about straying from the signage bylaw and have given the Heritage Committee too much power and influence. These are the types of things that gradually drive business away. I thought we wanted to attract tourists to the downtown!

  16. painterman says:

    I’m guessing that the Beach Bums new location received a building permit for the store renovations. Maybe the Town could included a notice that new signs would require permits. Problem solved.

  17. Chris Keen says:

    Sitting across the road from a Subway Shop, a bank, and a gas station, around the corner from a 10 metre image of a tiger and we’re worried about a sign not having a “heritage” look? Good grief!

  18. Susan says:

    And the Heritage Advisory Committee do not need their controlling hands in on signage. This is just ridiculous. Let’s try to kill a business in the name of heritage. Balderdash!

  19. hockeynan says:

    I agree with you all the way.Very well written.

  20. Marnie says:

    Ridiculous to ban that sign because it is too big, too bright, and apparently has a super-size bum on it, when just a couple of doors up the street there is a blinding display of artificial flowers on the sidewalk at the Dollar Store. Not to forget the large displays of summer goods in the Giant Tiger lot on the corner of Main and Elizabeth. While these displays are not signage they don’t shout heritage either and gaudy is an understatement. Trying to outfit all of our stores with co-ordinating signs in ice cream colours is a plan doomed to failure. Council should not give the bum’s rush to the Beach Bum sign and its impertinent fanny. It could be comic relief in a parade of cutesy matching signs.

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