By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Can a store owner use part of a sidewalk to put up a sandwich board sign, or display merchandise there to lure customers?
That’s a question Healdsburg officials are grappling with — again.
They want merchants to know that it’s not OK for sandwich board, or “A” frame signs, to be popping up on downtown sidewalks.
The City Council and Planning Commission in a joint meeting this week affirmed that business signs need to be placed out of the public right-of-way.
“They can’t be inhibiting the streets, or messing up the sidewalks,” said Councilman Steve Babb, reflecting the sentiment of his colleagues.
The related topic of stores putting out book carts, clothing racks and other merchandise is less clear cut.
“Obviously, we don’t want our sidewalks to look like Tijuana,” said Shelley Anderson, owner of Midnight Sun boutique and head of the downtown business district. But she also warned that sidewalks should not be too empty.
“Tourists like a little glimpse of what’s inside,” she said.
The issue of A-frame signs cluttering the sidewalk has come up before, and as a result, the city in 2004 began erecting street corner directional sign displays that point the way to various businesses.
“Cities all over the country want to emulate it,” said Senior Planner Lynn Goldberg. But she added that “recently portable signs have been creeping back.”
Business owners say that in the current economy they need to do everything they can to attract customers, she said.
While sandwich board signs are not prohibited by city codes, items placed in the public right-of-way require an encroachment permit, or site-license agreement.
“Don’t use sandwich signs. They are a little rough on me,” Phil Harlan, a vision-impaired man, said to the council and planning commission Tuesday.
“I can’t believe we don’t have more people tripping over them,” said Betsi Lewitter, a city planning commissioner.
In the end, officials agreed portable signs must be on private property.
And they said that other “attention getting devices,” such as banners, streamers, pennants and flags, are subject to city design review approval.
The thornier problem of unauthorized sidewalk sales is something the City Council wants the business community to take on and establish guidelines to consider by the end of the year.
The city allows two semi-annual sidewalk sale days. But the unauthorized display in the right-of-way of clothing items, furniture and books is causing concern.
“It’s turned into a bit of a monster. I don’t like the clutter increase day-by-day,” said Councilman Gary Plass.
For Aaron Rosewater, owner of Levin & Company bookstore facing the Healdsburg plaza, city officials are being heavy-handed.
“The City Council should be putting time into helping merchants on the plaza, rather than hindering them, particularly in this economy,” he said.
His bookcart sits on the edge of the sidewalk closest to the street, but is still in the right-of way and apparently against city code.
He said it draws people into his store and is responsible for about $12,000 in annual sales of used books.
“It would be a major setback for a number of reasons if I couldn’t put it on the sidewalk,” he said.
A few doors down from him, Bella boutique has outside racks and carts displaying women’s tops, hats and summer jackets.
The displays encroached slightly on the sidewalk Wednesday, but owner Cathleen Boitano-Grande said it was less than some restaurant tables that are allowed by the city.
“I don’t feel it’s in the right-of-way,” she said, adding that the displays are part of the charm, the “quaint, cozy, meandering ability” that tourists love.
“It’s not mall; it’s not big box. It’s cozy shopping,” she said, adding that the display pulls in customers and is responsible for 50 percent of her hat sales.
“I sell a lot of hats. That’s part of the reason I stay alive,” she said.
Some business owners had a different perspective.
“Too many merchants have overdone taking over the sidewalks,” said Sue Sacks, owner of Options Gallery.
She acknowledged that outdoor displays can bring a certain charm to Healdsburg, but they also can be excessive.
City Council members said they might be open to having one “representative item” displayed outside a store.
And they asked for a proposal from the business community by their final meeting of the year in December.