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The sign struggle: North Bend nursery’s sign campaign spurs debate on balance between law, business
Every time Nels Melgaard puts his A-frame signs up on North Bend streets, he knows he’s breaking the law. He’s not happy about it, but feels he’s at an impasse with the city. He can still joke about it, though.
“Those are the criminals there,” he says, pointing to three sturdy A-frames lined up outside a shed.
Melgaard makes the distinction because he just made up 100 other signs—simple yard signs declaring support for his business, The Nursery at Mount Si just outside city limits on Southeast 108th Street. Since May 25, when he got the signs, people have taken more than 80 and put them up in yards around North Bend.
The yard signs were inspired by the A-frames, which Melgaard sets out every week to direct travelers to his business, and which city of North Bend staffers occasionally confiscate for violating the city’s six-year-old sign code.
There are two problems with Melgaard’s A-frame, or sandwich board signs, according to the code. First, they are “off-site” advertising, meaning they promote a business that is not on the same property as the sign. More importantly, they are sometimes set up in the city’s right-of-way on sidewalks, which is against city code as well as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
“When the (A-frame) signs are in public rights of way, they impeded ADA accessibility,” said North Bend’s Community and Economic Development Director Gina Estep. The yard signs don't violate city code, she added.
After he finds that his signs are gone, Melgaard goes straight to “the orphan sign pile” at the city’s Public Works building to retrieve them, or if he’s quick enough, to the office of Community and Economic Development, where he usually gets a reminder about the city’s sign regulations.
“It’s just an old code, and it’s this goofy little game we play,” Melgaard said, adding that he’s done it, off and on, for the 13 years he’s been in business.
“The last time I had to go get ‘em was a couple of weeks ago,” he said, and that was the Friday before Mother’s Day, traditionally a big money-maker in the nursery business. He’d put the signs out in the morning, saw they were gone around noon, and found them in the back of a city Jeep Cherokee at Public Works, where they stayed all weekend because Public Works was closed.
“It’s amazing when I ask people how they found us, they say ‘oh, I saw your sign.’… Those signs make a difference, $200 to $1,000 a day,” he said. “That’s when I thought, ‘what’s bigger than the city?’”
He wanted to “let people know why I’m doing what I’m doing and let them have the opportunity to… make a statement.” His intent was not to lash out at the city, he said, and he was surprised by the online conversation that began on the City of North Bend Residents Yahoo group after his yard signs went out. The thread included accusations of discrimination against Melgaard’s business, and selective code enforcement.
City officials also saw the comments, and joined the online conversation to emphasize that Melgaard was not being singled out in the city’s enforcement of the sign code.
“We don’t regulate property outside of city limits,” said City Administrator Londi Lindell, “… except, they have to follow our sign code.”
By the city’s code, North Bend could have fined Melgaard $50 per sign the second time he’d set out the A-frames, and simply not returned them to him after a third offense, but staff are more interested in finding solutions to the problems, says Estep.
“My office is in charge of enforcement, and … we try to resolve code issues vs. bringing down the hammer,” she said. “Most of the time we get voluntary compliance… we haven’t had to go to the level of fining people.”
Estep and Londell have met with Melgaard about his signs, and the sign code, last week.
“There are some options regarding off-site signs that he’s currently not utilizing,” Londell said.
One such option, that businesses in the outlet mall and Mount Si Plaza use, is a “human sign.” Businesses can hire people to stand in a visible place, including in city right-of-way, and hold a sign advertising the business to entice people in. These signs are not in violation of city code, Estep said, and they give someone a job, too.
Revising the city’s sign code is also a possibility, but Estep noted that it couldn’t be done for just one business.
“We haven’t opened the sign code since I’ve been here, which is since September, 2006,” she said “A lot of things need to be addressed if the code is going to be amended.”
Melgaard is in full agreement. “I’m not looking for any special privileges from the city,” he said.
But after two “disastrous” springs and two falls without a pumpkin patch—a value of about $40,000 in sales and traffic for the nursery —Melgaard says the nursery needs to regain some lost ground. He’s building a fence in the next few weeks to keep the elk out of his pumpkins this year, but the school groups that used to visit his patch each fall have probably all found new pumpkin patches to visit, he said.
“I’ve got 8,700 pumpkin seedlings in my greenhouse, which I fully intend getting into the field, so we can have a pumpkin patch this year,” he said. “It’s not just the pumpkins, it’s fall color, it’s the whole fall season. It’s my employees working, not being on unemployment.”