Twelve shops in the historic heart of Annapolis were warned this week that their bright neon lights violate the city's zoning code.
The city notified the stores that they must apply for permits, even for signs behind glass windows, after a civic association and alderman complained about the "proliferation" of neon lights along Main Street.
"It kind of makes it look like a boardwalk," said Mike Langrehr, president of the Ward One Residents Association. "If you go back 25 years ago and see what Main Street looked like, you couldn't see the city for the signs. We don't want that to happen again."
In previous years, only a few downtown stores had neon signs in their windows, advertising beer or burgers. But this summer, everything from frozen yogurt to sunglasses is being touted in flashing red and blue.
"I think the fact that this has grown exponentially is indicative of what happens when you don't enforce your laws. People begin to flaunt your laws," said Alderman John Hammond, R-Ward 1, adding he received numerous complaints about the neon signs.
Russell T. Morgan Jr., chief of the Bureau of Inspections and Permits, spent a day checking the neon signs. Most are small and displayed in the bottom corners of shop windows, but none met the code, he said.
Downtown shops also must receive approval from the Historic District Commission, an agency established to protect the historic character of Maryland's capital.
Letters were mailed Tuesday informing the stores that they must apply for sign permits and submit designs to the commission for approval. The city did not threaten to impose any fines, and hopes the stores will cooperate without the threat of sanctions, Mr. Morgan said.
The neon crackdown comes hot on the heels of the city's great Spiderman controversy. The Twilite Zone comic shop was recently threatened with $400-a-day fines for hanging a poster of the web slinger on a Victorian house.
Owners Roger "Bump" Moyer and Scott Hanna said they need Spidey to advertise their store, which is tucked away on a side street a block from City Dock. But the city's Office of Planning and Zoning objected that the poster violated a clause in the code prohibiting banners.
The owners are meeting with the historic commission next Tuesday to work out a compromise. The commission will have its hands full after that, with 12 store owners on the way to discuss their bright lights.