November 24, 2008 · Updated 4:03 PM
‘Sandwich signs’ add to the flurry of political signs on Island sidewalks
By J. Jacob Edel
Mercer Island Reporter
As most Islanders already know, political campaign signs clutter street corners and public rights of way every election season. But in addition to those signs, new businesses in the Town Center are trying to avoid adding to the mess.
Though they may not be visual pollution of the same caliber as campaign signs, sandwich boards are popping up on the sidewalks and street corners of the Town Center as businesses begin to open in the new mixed-use buildings. One recent Thursday morning, there were 31 sandwich boards, or A-frame signs, advertising a range of businesses and services around the Island scattered about the Town Center.
Those sandwich boards included nine signs for real estate, apartments or senior housing. Two were related to food and beverage businesses. Personal services, such as dentists, doctors, salons, tanning and gyms, had 11 signs out. Pet stores and vets had three and six signs advertised for other businesses or community functions.
The city of Mercer Island has a temporary sign ordinance that dictates acceptable legal uses of such sandwich boards, as well as flags, banners, window and real estate signs. Each category has a set of conditions required of the sign or business owner.
According to the ordinance, sandwich boards are legal with some limitations or restrictions. For instance, licensed businesses are allowed to place one sandwich board on their private property or in the public right of way. The sign must be under five feet tall and no more than 24 square feet in area. Businesses may only place them outside during business hours and within 100 feet of the business.
Ryan Allison, one of the owners of Cellar 46 in The Mercer building, uses a sandwich board to advertise his restaurant and frequent wine tastings. He said he was aware of the ordinance and noted that the city currently has the ordinance posted on its Web site because of political campaigns. Sandwich boards are extremely important, he added.
“It’s absolutely critical for our business. It’s a powerful vehicle for us to let locals know what’s happening, what new events are occurring and that there’s free wine tastings,” Allison said. “It helps us get the word out about what activities are taking place.”
The high volume of local traffic that travels through S.E. 27th Street and 77th Avenue makes the intersection an important corner for nearby businesses to advertise.
“That’s the most powerful corner for our business because it draws our customers just half a block down 77th to our doors,” Allison said.
Other nearby business owners respect each other’s signs, Allison pointed out, and they try not to cluster them. Patrons also give positive feedback about the sandwich boards as they advertise free wine tastings.
“They’re simply the best thing for that,” he said.
While the temporary sign ordinance does not apply to campaign signs due to the First Amendment, the city does have a list of voluntary guidelines. The city code, however, also applies to the boards that announce Islander football games, swim meets at Mary Wayte Pool or performances at Youth Theater Northwest. Although, the city rarely gets a complaint about such non-profit or school related announcements.
Real estate signs have their own separate limitations within the city sign ordinance. One real estate sign is allowed per property for sale or rent with the exception of apartments or condos. Island Square, the Mercer and other multiple living units are allowed three sandwich boards to advertise available rentals. Those signs are allowed only while the leasing office is open.
In response to the recurring commotion concerning political campaign signs, a recent newsletter from the Island’s Chamber of Commerce advised local businesses to comply with the temporary sign ordinance and included a copy of it.
Chamber of Commerce director Terry Moreman said the issue of signs comes up every two years during election season, but it got a bit more heated this year. The notice in the newsletter was to remind some businesses and to educate others, Moreman said, because the Chamber wants to curtail illegal or loathsome business signs.
“Most of the violations we hear about are out of ignorance, not defiance,” Moreman said of complaints the Chamber receives concerning sandwich boards.
The city’s department of development services, which monitors and enforces the sign ordinance, did not have any written complaints about sandwich boards. When the city does receive a complaint, Jimmi Maulding, who handles code enforcement with the city, contacts business owners- and tells them about the temporary signage rules. If any signs are not properly placed, Maulding will ask them to remove it. If not removed within a reasonable amount of time, Maulding will do it herself and notify the owner.
Fines may be used if a business repeatedly violates the temporary signage laws, but Maulding said she makes every effort to work with the business owner first. Typically, she said, business owners comply with the rules once they are aware of them.
Councilmember Mike Grady said he had not received any complaints about business signs but did acknowledge some of the cankerous street corners crowded with signs advertising school functions or real estate open houses adjacent to several candidate signs.
“It gets a little over-the-top on some weekends,” he said. “It’s sensory overload when you come to an intersection.”
Around five sandwich boards and a flurry of campaign and real estate signs consistently clutter the corner of S.E. 40th Street and Island Crest Way to advertise high school sports or other extracurricular events. Grady would like to see that corner cleaned up.
The end of the arterial for Island Crest Way has another occasional cluster of signs. Those types of signs, however, aren’t the real problem, Grady said. It is the political campaign signs that he would like to see cleaned up with a voluntary program in which candidates agree to abstain from them.
“For crying out loud, it’s just over the top,” he said of campaign signs. “I will welcome the day when we don’t use those anymore. They are such a waste of money and resources. And it takes so much time putting them up just to have people knock them down.”