DOWNEY — This city has fired the opening salvo in a get-tough campaign to rid its streets of oversize signs, flags and banners that violate city law.
Misdemeanor charges were filed last week in Downey Municipal Court against five auto and truck dealers and an appliance dealer, accusing them of having illegal signs in front of their businesses.
Officials said the city tried for months to persuade the business owners to comply with the city's sign ordinance. The ordinance limits sign size, allowing signs for identification while restricting advertising.
Three Counts Against One
"This city has no interest in prosecuting people," City Prosecutor Martin J. Mayer said earlier this week. "After meeting and meeting and meeting, it got to a point where there was nowhere further to go."
Charged with misdemeanors under the city's sign ordinance were officials of Premium Truck & Auto Sales, which faces three counts; Jim's U-Save Auto Rentals & Sales, two counts, and GSA Auto Mart, two counts.
Also charged are officials of Paramount Chevrolet, four counts; Circus Auto Sales, one count, and Tabbert's Appliances, two counts. Five of the businesses are on Firestone Boulevard, the city's main commercial artery.
If convicted, the maximum sentence on each count is six months in County Jail and a $500 fine for each day the violation exists, Mayer said. Arraignments have been scheduled for April 19 and 26.
Some of the accused business owners said they have been backed into a corner because they are sure to lose customers if they remove their signs, banners and flags.
"If I took down the pole sign, I would have no identification," said Joe Bourdaa, president of Premium Truck & Auto Sales. "How am I expected to survive? I guess I would have to get out there with a bullhorn." Premium sells used cars and trucks.
Expense is another concern. The business owners said they spent hundreds of dollars on their signs.
"Who's going to pay for it?" asked Sal Sabbatino, who owns Tabbert's with his brother, Vincent Sabbatino. "The city has not said we'll pay 50%. They bang you with a club on the head and say take that sign down."
Several of the owners said they would like to reach a compromise with the city that would enable them to keep at least some of the signs that the city says are illegal.
Downey's director of community development, Jim Cutts, said the city is walking a fine line because it is trying not to offend business owners who generate tax dollars for Downey, while working to remove excessively large and unsightly signs that clutter roadways. Downey's auto dealers, for example, provide the city with about $3 million in tax revenue annually.
"We think this does a lot to beautify the business community from an aesthetic standpoint," Cutts said. "We believe they can attract a substantial amount of business without having really large signs."
Nine-Year Grace Period
The city adopted its first sign ordinance in 1977, and began enforcing it in 1983, Cutts said. The ordinance had a grace period of up to nine years--depending on the value of the offending sign--to enable business owners to benefit from their investments.
The city quickly ran into opposition and the council in 1983 declared a moratorium to enable a committee of city officials and business representatives to study the ordinance. In November, 1984, the council adopted substantial changes, and the ordinance was immediately enforced with new businesses, Cutts said.
But the existing businesses still had the grace period from the 1977 ordinance. Last summer, the city began vigorously enforcing provisions of the sign ordinance on established businesses.
The objective of the sign ordinance, Cutts said, is to allow signs for identification and to strictly limit their use for advertising.
The ordinance limits signs based on the size of a business' building front. Businesses may use temporary signs, such as flags and banners, only 30 days a year. And roof signs are prohibited. Under special circumstances, a business owner may be granted a zoning variance to allow the otherwise illegal use of signs.
Majority Have Complied
So far, inspectors have surveyed 156 properties and found 104 in violation, Cutts said. Eighty-two business owners have made changes to comply with city law and 15 others have submitted plans to comply or have filed for variances to allow them to keep their signs, he said.
The city is considering filing misdemeanor charges against two other business owners who have failed to act to remove their signs.
"This is the first batch," Cutts said.
The Downey Chamber of Commerce is concerned about the conflicts between the city and businesses over the sign ordinance, President Patricia Gomez said. A chamber committee is studying the law to determine whether changes should be made. The chamber was represented on the committee that studied the ordinance after the 1983 moratorium.