Signs of a problem in code enforcement

A recent Adirondack Daily Enterprise article discussed an upcoming decision by the Saranac Lake Zoning Board of Appeals regarding vinyl window decals at some area businesses. Mr. Knight’s article was well written and factually accurate; I am not writing to contest anything that he has written, but merely to add to it.

The Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living installed window decals late in September of 2012. In addition to informing the public of the services available to the community from the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living, the decals, which are semi-transparent, provide privacy to agency consumers at the front of our office. The product has improved the appearance of our front window, which was once an empty, vacant-looking space that consisted of a few plants and old, pink, metal blinds. Prior to the installation of the decals, not only did people not know what the Center for Independent Living did, but some people wondered if a business was actually occupying our space on Broadway.

Regarding the decision to be made by the Zoning Board of Appeals and the comments made by its members, I would like to make the following points:

While these decals might qualify as signs, they do not meet the definition of any type of sign included in the village’s code. Code enforcement has stated that we have violated the sign code as it pertains to window signs, but the village’s code clearly defines a window sign as “a sign inside of a building but intended to be viewed from the outside.” Our decal does not meet this definition, as it consists of a semi-transparent material that is adhered to the exterior of the window. It is my position that, by narrowly defining such a sign, the village must adhere to this definition; window decals cannot be considered window signs, according to the code. No other type of sign mentioned within the village’s code would apply to a window decal.

Board member Patricia Hillman points out that the code prohibits signs “placed upon a structure in any manner as to disfigure or conceal a window.” It cannot be argued that these decals somehow conceal our windows. The decals are semi-transparent, and it is obvious that they are adhered to a window; they do not look like a wall, as claimed by Hillman. The term “disfigure,” which means to spoil the attractiveness of something, is subjective. Many individuals have commented that the decals have improved the look of TLCIL’s space.

Hillman states that Saranac Lake is “a small town, and we don’t want to be a city. … We don’t want to be a New York City with signs all over the place. We want to be a cute, small, rural, upper Adirondack small town.” This may be Hillman’s vision for Saranac Lake, but this does not mean that everyone shares this vision. These decals are not installed in a residential area of the village; TLCIL’s decal is on a window in a business district, next to the post office and across the street from a very commercial-looking building, Community Bank. The government in Saranac Lake has worked diligently to brand the village and recruit businesses to the area, and I commend these efforts. Those businesses that have installed window decals are also trying to brand themselves and, in TLCIL’s case, invite consumers to utilize services.

It should be noted that two of the three businesses served with violation notices have had these decals installed for several years, with a notice of violation being issued only after an anonymous complaint was made to the village. While Community Development Director Jeremy Evans says that the village “isn’t necessarily going to issue violation notices to other businesses in the community because their window signs are bigger than 2 square feet,” every business located within the village that employs the use of a sign should take notice and realize that it only takes one complaint from one person who doesn’t like your sign for you to receive a notice that you are in violation of the code. Once this happens, you will be engaged in a long and costly process if you wish to protect the investment you have made to promote your business. As Mr. Boyer has pointed out, many businesses (he estimates 40) could be subject to such action by the village.

The Zoning Board of Appeals has an important decision before them. Will they interpret the code in such a way as to allow local businesses to promote themselves within our community, or will they succumb to an anonymous complaint and jeopardize the ability of every business in the village to promote itself?

Nathan Cox is executive director of the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living in Saranac Lake.