The Red Bank council yanked the plug on a new sign ordinance Wednesday night, leaving the town with a law that even local officials say is hot mess.
Amid widespread criticism, and some squabbling among majority Republicans, the governing body on Wednesday rejected proposed changes to the sign law that Councilwoman Cindy Burnham said had been in the works for three years and cost the town $18,000.
“Just because it used to be worse is no reason to find this acceptable,” Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer told fellow Republican Burnham, who had spearheaded the effort to untangle rules that merchants have criticized as hard to understand and costly to comply with.
A committee led by Burnham had reduced more than 20 pages of regulations to 14 pages. But even after enactment was put off for further clarification earlier this year, Red Bank RiverCenter, the autonomous agency that promotes the downtown, still had issues with the proposed changes, executive director Jim Scavone said in a March 15 letter to the council. Here’s Scavone’s letter: RiverCenter Sign Letter 031516
“Until RiverCenter’s requests are incorporated into this, I don’t think we can go ahead, because this isn’t simplified,” said Councilwoman Kathy Horgan. “That’s the point.”
Business owners also expressed frustration.
“Who cares whether there’s an open sign or a beer sign” in the window of a restaurant, asked Mike Gilson, a partner in 10th Avenue Burrito on West Front Street. “Who’s complaining about that? We have real issues” to deal with, he said.
Paula Donnelly, owner of the Globe Hotel bar on East Front Street, worried that changes in the law would impact her business. She said she had experimented with turning off her window signs for a day, “and I lost a day’s receipts. If I didn’t have fluorescent signs, nobody would know I was open.”
“The whole thing was about simplifying our ordinance,” Burnham said, an effort that involved the participation of former planning and zoning director Donna Smith Barr and T&M Associates, which billed the town $18,000 for its work.
“There are a lot of compromises” in the amendments, Burnham said. “Everybody isn’t going to get everything they want. Is it perfect? No. Is everybody going to be happy? No. But it’s simplified.”
She said business owners could consult “their attorneys” for help in understanding the law.
“I’m an attorney, and I don’t understand it,” Republican Councilman Mark Taylor told Burnham. Referring to a one-page summary of the amendments, he asked, “why isn’t the summary the ordinance?”
Burnham said that if the bill failed, the code enforcement office would have to revert to enforcing the existing law, which is both complicated and “not as lenient.”
After an enforcement crackdown that generated considerable anger in the business community almost two years ago, borough code enforcers were told to hold off on issuing violation notices while the council attempted to clarify.
The upshot is that there’s no enforcement underway, Administrator Stanley Sickels said in February. As a result, numerous retailers have advantage of the situation, some nearly covering windows where a maximum 15 percent coverage is allowed, he said.
Councilman Ed Zipprich, who seconded Burnham’s motion to approve the changes, acknowledged that it “needs more work,” but that additional changes could be made in the future.
Schwabenbauer, though, said that except for some minor tweaks, “nothing has changed in the last eight months.”
Only Burnham and Zipprich voted in favor of the amendments. Schwabenbauer, Taylor, Horgan and Mike Whelan voted no.