Costumed characters protest Raleigh sign ordinance
Posted November 22, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — A snowman, an angel, a queen and a man on stilts with an afro pleaded with Raleigh City Council members Tuesday morning to ease the city's regulations on advertising signs.
The characters work for Hughie & Louie's, a costume shop at 6017 Glenwood Ave., which city zoning inspectors have threatened with hundreds of dollars in fines for using illegal signs.
Raleigh's sign ordinance prohibits signs – including costumed characters – on a sidewalk or in the city's right-of-way along streets, both for appearance and because they distract drivers. Businesses are allowed to have signs for special events only for their grand opening and a going-out-of-business sale.
Costume shop owner Louie Bowen and several other business owners told council members that the ordinance is too restrictive for small businesses in a sluggish economy.
"We're not holding a sign. We're just out in costume waving at people, just like you would walk down the street and wave at someone," said Bowen, who wore a crown and red cape to the Law & Public Safety Committee meeting. "You need to give us a way to get out to the public because you and I know the best way to communicate is face to face with someone."
She said she tried to use another Raleigh ordinance to find a way around the sign rules. She went to City Hall on Monday and obtained a free license to panhandle and made up a sign "begging" people to visit her store.
"If these (panhandlers) can hold signs and they don't pay taxes and they don't hire people, we should be able to do that too," she said. "We pay taxes. We pay rent. We pay employees. We pay to be where we are and to do what we do. I need to be able to do what I need to do to stay in business."
City officials said Bowen is breaking the panhandling ordinance because people aren't supposed to solicit drivers, but they said Raleigh doesn't have enough zoning inspectors to enforce either that law or the sign regulations, which leads to frequent violations.
The council plans to create a seven-member task force to look at whether people in costumes should be considered signs and whether businesses should be allowed more exemptions for special signs. The task force is expected to make its recommendations to the council within 90 days.
"This needs to looked at basically from a business standpoint of what works and what doesn't work and what we can allow," said Councilman John Odom, who noted that he first ran for City Council two decades ago because of his own frustrations with the sign ordinance.
Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said the sign regulations are in place to reduce the clutter along city streets, but that needs to be balanced against the needs of local businesses.
"When you create laws and regulations, they have a greater impact than just on one business," Baldwin said. "If we open this up, we create an even bigger issue."