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More leniency on signage for businesses? Group begins review of rules

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With a group of costumed patriots looking on, a citizens group today began the tedious work of poring over the city's temporary sign rules to consider ways to offer more leniency to businesses.

It was an odder scene than you'd typically find in Room 303 at City Hall. The outfits - and the five people who wore them - were courtesy of Louie Bowen, owner of Hughie & Louie's, a costume shop on Glenwood Avenue that has been feuding with the city over advertising and signage provisions.

Bowen sends her costume-clad children to wave at cars from the sidewalk outside her shop. Turns out that's a no-no under City Code Section 10-2083, which allows for portable signs, banners, pennants and balloons only with a 30-day permit.

Businesses are limited to two such permits for as long as they are in operation.

The limitations are too strict for City Councilman John Odom, a business owner who successfully pushed for a task force to study the rules. Odom owns a collection of Meineke car care centers.

The 9-member citizens panel includes neighborhood representatives, business people from Seaboard Station and North Hills, a merchants association staffer and George Chapman, the city's former planning director.

One potential compromise has already been floated. Businesses could apply once per year for temporary sign permits. The fee for such permits would be $250, and the city would continue to limit the types and/or size and location of the signs.

Temporary signage is a hot source of debate in many communities, particularly those concerned with aesthetics. Raleigh imposed limits on signage in the 1970s and '80s to prevent the proliferation of giant billboards and pole signs.

Now, the city is dealing with a new generation of special signs, from "wiggly men" inflatables that shimmy on the sign of the road to real people paid by tax firms to dress as the Statue of Liberty during tax season.

A squad of "sign police" from the city's zoning enforcement office are responsible for enforcing the rules, largely on a complaint-driven basis.

On Wednesday, Bowen asked the group why the Downtown Raleigh Alliance can hang special events banners in places such as Glenwood South, a privilege that she says mom 'n pop businesses do not get.

Bowen and her band of patriots wore George Washington-style coats in honor of the general's birthday, which happens to be today. They carried signs with patriotic messages such as "Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder."

"All I'm asking is for everyone to get the same rules," Bowen said. "You're going to call a person visual clutter?"

Jennifer Martin, the representative from the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association, peppered city staffers with questions about how the rules are interpreted and enforced. Her group has argued two 30-day permits aren't enough.

The panel will have up two three months to make a recommendation to the City Council. After today's get-acquainted session, the next meeting will be Tuesday, March 6 at 1 p.m.

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