Annapolis cracks down on store displays Historic district merchants resisting the effort

August 13, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

It's just a pig on a weather vane, but it's causing a ruckus.

The farm-style merchandise that sits outside A. L. Goodie's gift shop on Main Street in the Annapolis historic district is one of many illegal sidewalk displays that has city officials upset.

"We want to keep Main Street looking beautiful, the way it was supposed to look," said John L. Prehn, the city administrator. "It's time we should ask the business community to cooperate on this."

Sidewalk displays, illegal for years in the Colonial-era downtown, are showing up along historic district streets in greater numbers. The offenders: A variety of outdoor signs, furnishings and flags arranged by merchants to attract customers.

Over the weekend, city officials sent 62 letters to business owners urging them to remove their signs and wares by Monday or see them tossed in the trash and their businesses slapped with up to $400 in daily fines.

The city cited nearly 100 violations. Some of the displays never received Historic District Commission approval and are deemed incompatible with the Colonial tenor of the district. Others are too big given planning codes that regulate signs according to storefront sizes. Still more block sidewalks and pose safety threats to pedestrians, city officials say.

The government has been deliberately slow to fine and confiscate unapproved outdoor displays in part to help downtown merchants during the nearly yearlong reconstruction of Main Street, which filled the main thoroughfare with bulldozers and hurt merchants' profits, Prehn said.

The city and its shopkeepers have battled before over signs and storefront appearances. The city council in 1993 tried unsuccessfully to outlaw neon signs as too glitzy for the historic district. And this year, the Historic District Commission has considered amendments that would allow it to decide how the inside of a business looks.

Now the city is trying to better control the shops' outside appearances -- issuing warnings about everything from "sale" signs to hanging flowerpots. Shop owners see the crackdown as an attack on their late-summer business.

"It's oppressive when the city wants to decide what's tasteful and what we should submit to," said Paul Coe, co-owner of Evolve, a skateboard, surfboard and snowboard shop. The city sent Coe a letter telling him to take down the three T-shirts he has tacked to his shop's front door.

Coe and other merchants said they may not cooperate with the city's order, calling it arbitrary and unfair. Some storekeepers mocked the letter as an example of nitpicking by the city's preservation forces.

"I showed it to the district manager, and we just started laughing," Clarence Taylor, the store manager at Britches. Yesterday, a black metal "SALE" easel stood outside the shop near City Dock. The city's letter attempting to ban it sat in the garbage.

Donna Hole, the chief of historic preservation for the city's Planning and Zoning Department, said this tussle isn't just about preserving 17th-century-style charm in downtown Annapolis.

"As much as anything, it's a public safety issue," she said. "You can't block the right of way with temporary signs."

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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