Is a new city ordinance ‘silencing’ our neighborhood mom-and-pops?

Have you noticed fewer “open” signs around our neighborhood? It might be the toll taken by the economy.

Or maybe it’s the stepped-up enforcement of Dallas’ sign ordinance.

Lake Highlands councilman Jerry Allen says this drama began with the good intentions of southern sector councilmen who wanted retailers to de-clutter storefronts. (Think convenience stores hawking beer and cigarettes.) The city council agreed it would be good for neighborhoods to reduce this visual noise, so Dallas amended its sign ordinance in June 2008.

“We gave it a year before we put it into effect,” Allen says. “But like everything else, it doesn’t affect you until it affects you. Once the code gives that first warning, that’s when it starts to hit the fan.”

The “it” that hit is the outcry from targeted businesses who feel their signs are no worse than those at the grocer or dry cleaner across the street, or in adjacent neighborhoods. Soon, city code compliance officials visited Lake Highlands and surprised some of our business owners with warnings and citations.

Enter the Institute for Justice, a Libertarian organization that advocates, according to its website, “on behalf of individuals whose most basic rights are denied by the government.”

In November 2009, the institute filed Gilliland v. the City of Dallas (April Gilliland of Fast Signs on Central Expressway). The lawsuit claims the new ordinance inhibits free speech and discriminates against commercial speech, because political signs are still allowed. Co-petitioner Caroline Thomi of AAA Vacuum at Walnut Hill and Audelia says she is concerned too many people will see her signs gone and figure her shop has closed.

And yet, despite sympathy for these business owners, don’t some code violations deserve citations? Is a lawsuit against the city really necessary?

At Quilter’s Connection on the southeast corner of Plano and Walnut Hill, owner and neighborhood resident Shelley Chappell received a warning to take down her signs or risk a citation. Even the painted sign on the door displaying her hours is a violation.

Quilters know the store has been in business for years, but Chappell has been owner only for the past two and a half years. The previous owner did not sell the old name, so Chappell amended the permanent sign installation to read simply “Quilts”. Since the city’s warning, she has removed all other signs.

When I pulled into the parking lot, the windows looked bare. If I hadn’t called in advance, I might wonder if her shop was still open.

Walk into the shop, and you enter another world. There is nothing like a fabric store — the myriad bolts of color, the hand tools, the patterns and works in progress. Because Quilter’s Connection is unique in our area, and because it also offers classes, the store draws customers from miles around.

As a community service, the store has donated quilts to military personnel who recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. It used to display the Lake Highlands Exchange Club poster with photos of our local heroes.

The code warning forced Chappell to take it down.

“This is hard on any business, let alone a newer business,” Chappell says. “I assumed it was only because city revenue is down.”

Warnings that go unheeded and turn into fines could cost small business owners anywhere from $324 to $2,000 per day, as determined by the court.Matt Miller of Institute for Justice says AAA Vacuum has been threatened with charges of $1,000 per day.

Chappell has removed all temporary signs, but so far has not removed the painted sign displaying her hours.

Allen says council has reviewed the rules since business owners began to complain, but for now has concluded that “it looked like progress was being made; let’s give this thing a chance to work.” He says council may revisit the rules in the future.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Justice is waiting for a hearing (possibly in July) on a motion to suspend fees on businesses until the pending lawsuit is resolved. The institute’s goal is to ask the court to declare the ordinance unconstitutional.

I’m no lawyer, but it seems there ought to be a middle ground. I keep hoping common sense will somehow, someday, prevail.

While we wait, if you think a business you used to visit has closed, look again. Maybe it just took the signs down.