Minuteman Press and the city of Princeton are at odds over Minuteman Press owner Tim Sierks installing three signs in late December on the Paws Up 4 You business building, 602 Rum River Drive S. in Princeton.
The situation has gotten to the point where both sides have retained attorneys. Paws Up 4 You owner Tina Stuck, meanwhile, is caught in the middle. She wants the signs to remain up, explaining that she feels it has increased her business. At the same time, she says she never intended to be in violation of any city ordinances.
Things neared the boiling point about three weeks ago when Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce president Bob Michael wrote a letter critical of the city to the Princeton City Council regarding the sign issue.
“A current dispute between the city of Princeton and our local businesses regarding the interpretation of proper placement of three building signs has repeatedly been brought to our attention,” the letter began. “Upon hearing the concerns and reading the current building codes, the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce is very disappointed at what appeared to be a lack of consistency and the unjust singling out of a few select businesses by the city.”
Michael said the three advertising signs at the heart of the dispute “are not a public hazard, are not interfering with traffic, nor are they inappropriate or offensive.”
Michael stated that he believes the signs that Siercks installed for Paws Up 4 You “merely list in simple phrase terms what this new retail shop sells and services. Signage is critical for a business, especially a brand new business, to survive and these signs in question have reportedly increased sales for this brand new business by 30 percent, allowing it to employ more staff and service our community.”
The city’s side
Princeton City Community Development Director Carie Fuhrman presented the city’s side in the dispute in a Feb. 14 memorandum to the city Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority.
Fuhrman began the memo explaining that the city’s EDA and commission were both given copies of Michael’s Feb. 13 letter to the City Council.
Fuhrman then continued that late last summer or early fall, Siercks, as a sign contractor, had brought a draft plan to City Hall for placing three separate signs on the Paws Up 4 You building.
Fuhrman noted that the proposed location of the signs was not addressed in the current sign ordinance and because of that, the signs were technically not allowed. Fuhrman explained that if a use is not listed in the city’s sign ordinance, it is not permitted.
She explained further in the memo that she told Siercks that “we could take the subject signs to the Planning Commission for discussion as the Planning Commission was already discussing various aspects of the city’s sign ordinance.”
Fuhrman noted that the commission discussed the signs in general at its September meeting, plus several other aspects of the sign ordinance and that staff was directed to do further research on all of the discussed signs.
Fuhrman’s memo stated that Siercks applied for a sign permit in October to place the three mentioned signs on the roof overhang of the Paws Up 4 You building.
“The application was denied due to the fact that the signs were not allowed in the sign ordinance,” Furhman stated. “Staff reminded the applicant that the Planning Commission was researching the possibility of these signs being allowed in the sign ordinance, but no changes had yet been made.”
At this point, Siercks was still a member of the city Planning Commission, which he left on Dec. 31.
Fuhrman pointed out in the memo that Siercks installed the three signs on Paws Up 4 You without receiving the necessary permit, and that he applied for a building permit application after the signs were installed. Furhman also stated in the memo that the city followed up with a letter to Minuteman Press in January, denying the application, notifying the business of the city code violation, and requiring that the signs be removed.
Then in early January, Paws Up 4 You owner Tina Stuck requested council action on her appeal of the requirement that the signs come down. The City Council on Jan. 23 reaffirmed staff’s decision and required the signs to come down.
The three signs that Siercks installed on the facia hanging down from the roof line at Paws Up 4 You have remained up since Fuhrman’s memo, and the issue was turned over to the city attorney’s office.
Fuhrman noted that the Planning Commission has continued to discuss numerous aspects of the sign ordinance in depth because it is a “complicated topic” and that the commission has not made a decision regarding this particular signage. She also noted that the proper public hearing process would still need to occur.
Fuhrman, in her memo, stated that the commission’s intention all along has been to bring all of the proposed changes to the sign ordinance in one ordinance amendment rather than bringing multiple amendments at various times.
City Hall comments
When the Union-Eagle inquired if any city staff person would be willing to answer questions about the sign matter, City Administrator Mark Karnowski said on Feb. 27 said they couldn’t because it was now in the hands of Damien Toven, the city attorney.
The Union-Eagle asked Siercks for comment on the matter on Feb. 26, and he strongly opposed any publicity on the matter where his business would be mentioned.
He offered this statement: “The (Feb. 14) memo that Carie (Fuhrman) wrote does not represent the true process, steps and effort taken to put the signs up. It doesn’t reflect the steps in the process we’ve all taken. We’ve done everything we can to get this moved forward. At some point, you have to put a business first and do what’s right.”
Sierks indicated that he sympathized with Paws Up 4 You having to wait from August, when he understood Stuck first looked into getting more signage, until the projected date of sometime in April this year, when a new sign ordinance could go on the books.
Siercks also said that he believed that the three signs would fit in the ordinance that is in the making after his having read a draft of the wording. Drafts of an ordinance can change, however, all the way up until a city council passes the motion to approve an ordinance.
Siercks also indicated that he feels the city is “singling” him out in sign enforcement because he was on the Planning Commission.
Before Siercks installed the three signs on the front of the Paws Up 4 You building in late December, there was already a pylon-type sign in the front part of the lot in front of the building that is still standing.
Stuck comments on the issue
Stuck made several things clear in her Feb. 26 interview with the Union-Eagle. One is that she wants the signs to remain up. She explained that “immediately” after Siercks installed the three signs, her business went up 33 percent. It had gone up significantly already from when she relocated her business to Princeton last summer, but the three signs boosted it more, she said.
Secondly, she said she made it clear to the city when she arrived in Princeton that she wanted to do everything by the book and not violate any city ordinances or regulations.
Third, she said that when Siercks was about to install the signs last December, she told him not to because she did not have the money at the time, and that he responded that they could work out a payment arrangement later.
Stuck said she doesn’t feel enough people notice her sign that is attached to a pylon out in front and she doesn’t believe signs attached to the exterior of the walls would work. Parked vehicles, especially bigger ones, would make signs on the outside walls difficult to see from the street, she said.
Stuck said she did not know at the time of their installation that the signs were not legal.
But to take those three signs down now would make things worse for her business because people would think she was closing it, she added. She said she has been giving the town a message of “permanency,” that she is “here to stay.”
Stuck noted that she still hadn’t paid for the signs and that she feels the dispute is now between the city and Minuteman Press, and not between the city and her. She explained that she did not install the signs.
Stuck noted that she was interviewed by Princeton Police Chief Brian Payne and Toven, and that she felt the interview “went well” and that she was “led to believe they were no longer coming after me. I had done nothing wrong. It (the city’s focus) had turned to the (sign) contractor.”
Stuck commented on the letter that Michael sent to the city supporting her desire to see the signs stay up. She responded that the letter is “awesome” and agrees with it.
“It was really a surprise to get that letter in my hands today,” Stuck said. “I am a member of the chamber of commerce. They basically said what I’ve been thinking all along.”
Michael, in his letter to the City Council, said the signs were “hung in a good faith effort to meet the ordinances by being attached to the facia and on the roof in an effort to comply with verbal conversations with city staff and various committee representatives.”
Michael’s letter asserts that “there is a discrepancy in definition as the many other businesses in town have similar signage which is not under fire. It is disheartening both to our new business owner and the business community at large. A city which does not promote consistency and fairness so businesses can best represent themselves and conduct business is not business friendly.”
Michael’s letter continued that he thinks the way the sign issue is “not only affecting the business climate within Princeton but is doing little to help entice future businesses to fill the vacant spaces in town, which the city professes it wants to see occur. The business in question, and all Princeton businesses, have enough obstacles to making it in this economy.
“These discrepancies and inconsistencies prevent business growth. The city’s action to prosecuted businesses and restrict business on such simple matters is unjust.”
Michael said the “Princeton Chamber of Commerce asks that the city of Princeton reconsider its stance on this issue, an issue that has lingered on since last summer with no resolution, and cease the current action against our businesses and re-examine how they can best support our small businesses in Princeton.”
Michael’s letter also urged various of the city’s boards to “seriously look at how these inconsistencies and additional barriers to conducting business in Princeton is essentially damaging our business community. The Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce asks that the city instead find ways to uplift and encourage our businesses as we all partner to grow a successful business community together.”