Sign Fight Illuminates Restrictive Code
by Karen James
Mar 26, 2009 | 2276 views | 13 13 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
OPEN? – Some businesses in town find it necessary to post lighted “open” signs due to the limited visibility of their locations. (Photos by Brett Schreckengost)
OPEN? – Some businesses in town find it necessary to post lighted “open” signs due to the limited visibility of their locations. (Photos by Brett Schreckengost)
Does a Recession Warrant Wiggle Room?

TELLURIDE — In the present economy it is difficult enough for restaurants and retailers to make ends meet even when they possess wide glass storefronts on Colorado Ave. with which to beckon passersby inside to browse or stop for an afternoon snack.

Which is why earlier this month the three owners of Tommy’s, a bar and restaurant tucked away from the main street thoroughfare down the dim central corridor that runs through the ground floor of the Elks Building, decided they needed some help.

From Colorado Ave. the view of Tommy’s main entrance is already partially obscured by a stairwell leading to the second floor of the building. And if that weren’t troublesome enough for a business dependant on foot traffic, the daytime lighting that surrounds the restaurant makes it appear to be closed even when it isn’t.

Customers “walk in the door and say, ‘Are you open?’” co-owner Stacy Ticsay said. “It happens all the time.”

So when a regular customer suggested that a lighted “open” sign could help solve that problem, it seemed like a good idea.

After searching the Internet she found a satisfactory sign – the single word “open” displayed in simple, easy-to-read block letters, aligned vertically.

Not only was it inexpensive, it was also made from energy efficient LED lights – not neon, as is expressly prohibited in the town Land Use Code, Ticsay emphasized. It seemed perfect.

The Tommy’s owners hung the sign in their window and admired the view. It was bright and eye-catching enough to remain visible during the day, according to Ticsay, but not so busy as to be offensive – she thought.

So it came as a surprise when Tommy’s received a letter from the Town Planning Department dated March 3 advising the restaurant that it was in violation of an LUC prohibition against neon signs and so needed to remove the “open” sign.

But the light wasn’t neon, they countered, and so thought it was compliant with the code.

Nevertheless, what the Tommy’s owners failed to realize in their own interpretation of the LUC is that not only are neon lights off-limits, but so are any and all forms of signs with lights. The only exception to the rule is for historic signs like the one that announces the Sheridan Opera House – and those require approval from the Historic and Architectural Review Commission.

Tommy’s received a second letter dated March 6 advising the restaurant to remove the sign because it still violated the LUC.

The owner’s did remove it, but shortly thereafter they placed a neon bicycle sign – the New Belgium Brewing Company’s Fat Tire Amber Ale logo – in their kitchen where it was visible to the public. Now, to their surprise, the town threatened to prosecute.

“It was a weird position to be in,” said Ticsay. “All we are trying to do is make our business work.”

But to Town Planning Director Chris Hawkins, the progression to threat of prosecution was logical.

“We always prefer to take a friendly approach,” he said, adding that Tommy’s had not only received several warnings on this occasion, but that in 2007 the court found the restaurant to be in violation of the LUC for installing signs without permits.

“This has been an ongoing pattern,” he said.

“That was a really innocent mistake,” said Ticsay, explaining that the person the owners hired to make the signs for the restaurant when it first opened in 2007 assured them that he would submit the proper paperwork to the town and never did.

“We’re not sitting around thinking about ways to violate the sign law,” she added.

The Tommy’s incident has sparked a larger debate within the community about whether or not the town’s sign regulations are outdated or otherwise too restrictive.

“There could be a banner over main street and you’re not allowed to put a sale sign in your window,” said Harley Brooke-Hitching, emphasizing that point at a recent meeting of the Telluride Business Alliance.

“There is an emerging need to revisit those regulations because they haven’t been updated for some time,” said Hawkins, remaining careful to emphasize that even with an update the sign laws might not change.

Ticsay and other business owners like Pip Kenworthy, whose basement level consignment store set back from main street is another difficult retail location, wonder if the town can’t relax the code to allow businesses with poor visibility to use more prominent signage – particularly because the country is in a massive recession.

“If we can’t let people know we’re here, how are we going to stay in business?” asked Kenworthy, who said that the town also asked her son to extinguish the small, red neon “open” light displayed in her window when he was working there a few weeks ago.

“I told him, ‘Don’t you dare turn it off,’” she said. “It is important for my business to have, I know that much.”

“There should be some sort of exception made to be more pro-business,” said Ticsay.

“Signs with lights are prohibited in all of the town,” said Hawkins. “It’s designed to preserve the town’s historic character,” he said, adding that laws must continue to be enforced even in a difficult economy.

The question has no easy answer in a far-flung historic landmark district like Telluride that depends on tourist dollars for survival.

“There’s obviously good reason why the sign ordinance is strict,” said Scott McQuade who, as a member of the HARC, is charged with ensuring the town’s historic character remains intact.

“But I can certainly understand the businesses need to get customers in the door and somewhat having their hands tied,” he continued, weighing in on the debate in his other role as Chief Executive Officer of the Telluride Tourism Board.

“They may have to contemplate whether they spend more on advertising,” he said.

“If we start to change too much we run the risk of impairing the visual appearance of the town,” he continued, noting that many visitors come here specifically to enjoy Telluride’s historic landmark status.

“The concern would be that once you open that door how far open does it swing,” he said.

“We’re not trying to turn the town into Vegas; I respect the historic nature of the town,” said Ticsay. But, “Sometimes you just have to rethink things.”
Comments-icon Post a Comment
March 27, 2009
yhea! real HUMBLE.
March 27, 2009
if you don't see it, it must not be offending you. if you do see it, and you find it "repugnant", shouldn't the planner be enforcing the law across the board?
velvet elvis
March 27, 2009
These businesses are trying to do the right thing. These signs are discreet and unobtrusive to anyone's aesthetics. Would you prefer black velvet and day-glo paint? I bet someone could have some real fun and still stay within the guidelines.
March 26, 2009
Come on, if the survival of a business is dependent upon a neon or neon looking sign, then something is obviously wrong.

When considering all of the factors which contribute to the running of a successful business -- quality of product, quality of service, aesthetics of the establishment, perceived value for price paid, marketing, overall customer experience, competition, effective management, cost-of-goods sold ratio, word-of-mouth, etc. -- it seems rather far-fetched that the survival of a business hinges on a neon sign.

Especially in the restaurant business, surely everyone knows of at least a few gems, out of the way, hard to find, hole-in-the-wall, off the beaten path establishments which are highly popular and successful. The fact they are not on a main drag is often part of the charm and allure.

Stop making an issue out of a non-issue. Find an alternative which conforms to the town's codes. Perhaps a hand painted sandwich board, a chalk board with updates on offerings, a mock dining table fully set up with replicas of food on dinner plates, etc.

If a business is failing, a neon type sign will hardly be the miracle savior. Sometimes attrition is just part of life.

There may be many issues in need of compromise or amendment to ensure the success of the town's retail businesses, but, to desecrate Telluride's historic character, beauty and charm with neon signs is NOT one of them. It is a repugnant idea which will hopefully never materialize.

Keep Telluride... Telluride.

Just my humble opinion.
dear stacy
March 26, 2009
Can you or anyone tell me where the locations are where there are neon signs in Telluride? I have never seen them and do not believe they exsit but please prove me wrong.
Stacy Ticsay
March 26, 2009
Dear "no neon" and "are u kidding", I can't help myself but address your misinformed comments. Neon does exist in telluride. There are at least five businesses on main street where neon is visible from the sidewalk. It is not offensive but completely appropriate for the businesses where they appear. Take a walk and look around! The tourists that are coming solely for Telluride's historic status apparently have not burned their eyes out from having walked by, or into, these establishments.

Secondly, what do you possibly know about the rent we pay? Believe me, if you did, you'd choke on your sushi. Main Street commercial rents are down 30 to 40 percent for those lucky enough to be able to renegotiate. Many prime retail locations sit empty due to this economy.

Lastly, the off main street locations you mention actually benefit from the sign regulation changes made in 2003. They allowed Main Street directional signs for off main street businesses in order to be more PRO BUSINESS. So while these businesses don't pay "main street rent" (whatever that is!), they are allowed main street signage. The implication that they have higher business levels because they are run better is the most ludicrous of them all! Have you actually spoken to anyone in the business community who has their hard earned savings on the line? You are completely out of touch.
tourist economy?
March 26, 2009
I have personally observed on more than one occasion tourists standing on Colorado Ave., peering into the dark Tommy's alcove and wondering out loud whether there was an eating establishment there. Emilio's is crowded by locals who know of the place through word of mouth. Tommy's depends on the tourist industry and I think a small lighted "open" sign is completely appropriate. Are we a tourist town or not?
March 26, 2009
While I not supporting neon signs, I believe Tommy's location is different than Cornerhouse, Smugglers, and 221 in that foot traffic can "menu browse" at the latter without going out of their way. I believe the same is true for Emilios to a certain extent (if I remember correctly).

While the sandwich sign might be a step in the right direction for Tommy's, I don't recall there being a full menu on the actual sign (I could be wrong). If not, a more extensive menu might help a lot ... might help tip the scales to the perception of being a restaurant with a bar vs. a bar which serves some food.
no neon
March 25, 2009
No Excuse, no neon!

Rent a main street level store, if you want more business or run a better business. Look how crowded Emilios is every night now. Why? good service, good food, good price same. Terrible location and signage but good business levels. Powderhouse enjoyed the same strong traffic. Cornerhouse, smugglers, 221 do not need neon to survive. If your business is strong you do not need more signage. Poor excuse for poor performance.
Fair is Fair
March 25, 2009
The playing field should be level. If Chris Hawkins is determined to enforce the sign law to the point of prosecuting over a small, barely visible neon, the town's attorney & scarce resources will be put to the test as he takes half of main street (the half that's not vacant) to court.
You are Right
March 25, 2009
Employees, you have hit the nail on the head! Not only that but the powers that be must think an empty and shuttered business is going to somehow be better looking! Yes we want to keep our character but we have a business district FOR DOING BUSINESS and that goal has to be helped.
are U kidding
March 25, 2009
Allowing neon in Telluride is like allowing a roller coaster on main st. It simply does not belong, not now nor never. If you want main street business action, pay a main street rent and don't try to make Telluride into times square to be seen.
What the employees
March 25, 2009
of the Town of Telluride is a good dose of reality...

A massive layoff, a curtailment of the lucrative benefit package, a 25% cut in pay...

Of course, this wont will be cut first..but if it were to happen and the employees could tie their jobs to robust businesses..we would see how a sea change in the way they approach de minimis things like this little neon sign...