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Village PC not interested in regulating human signs

Lake Orion resident Kimberly Davis battles the elements with a smile as she wears a sandwich board sign promoting Pit Stop Barbershop in downtown Oxford. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
February 26, 2014 - When it comes to the idea of regulating "human signs," the Oxford Village Planning Commission last week decided not to get involved.

"This one you can deep-six," said Commission Chair Sue Bossardet to village planner Chris Khorey, who had written a memo advising commissioners of their regulatory options.

At issue is the method of advertising used by downtown's Pit Stop Barbershop. The business pays people to stand on the corners of M-24 and Burdick, wearing a sandwich board sign promoting it.

"It's my understanding that some of the businesses downtown have complained," Bossardet said.

"They do not feel it is representative of the historic character and charm of our village," said village Manager Joe Young.

Bossardet noted these complaints were lodged by business owners who don't wish to publicly state their grievances because they "don't want to be castigated for having an opinion that might differ from other people" or have "their name printed in the paper."

"People like to privately complain and expect some of us to step forward and say something," she said.

In response to these complaints, Khorey wrote a Feb. 13 memo advising planning commissioners on what they can and cannot do with regard to human signs.

"This is an awkward area," Khorey told commissioners. "There's kind of a fine line in terms of whether we can treat them as signage or whether they are people exercising their (right to) free speech."

Khorey indicated the village can restrict human signs to "certain times and parts of the village" and prohibit them "completely" from standing in the right-of-way or on public property.

The village can have police remove a human sign from the public right-of-way "if it is distracting traffic or blocking pedestrians." The municipality can also "ban all off-premises commercial advertising," which it currently does not do.

However, Khorey advised the village that it cannot completely ban human signs nor can it "regulate human signage with non-commercial messages."

"If they want to stand out there with a sign that says 'Vote Obama,' we have to let them do that," he told commissioners.

The village also cannot regulate the text or images that appear on everyday clothing, even if it's being used as a form of advertising.

The commission didn't appear to be gung-ho about enacting any regulations for human signage.

Commissioner Maureen Helmuth asked if the Pit Stop's human signs have caused any problems.

"I haven't had any calls on it," replied village Police Chief Mike Neymanowski.

Commissioner Tom Kennis asked if any traffic accidents had resulted from their activities.

"Nothing," Neymanowski said.

"I've never seen them step into traffic," Helmuth said. "I've never seen them knock anybody down. I don't know why we're looking at this."

"Ditto," said Commissioner Jack Curtis.

"How does this help the village, banning these signs?" Curtis said. "The people that do it are always friendly. They always wave. They always smile."

It was noted that Pit Stop utilizes this type of advertising because the shop is located in the rear of a building that faces downtown's northeast parking lot as opposed to busy M-24.

Curtis said it's contradictory for the village to limit the signage allowed on the front of buildings and then, ask businesses to lease the backs and want them "to thrive in our community."

All Pit Stop is doing, he said, is employing people to advertise "a business that you cannot see" from the street.

If the village tries to stop or limit human signs, "all you're doing is hurting other businesses, in my opinion," Curtis said. "It's like we're regulating just to regulate."

Helmuth believes Pit Shop's human billboards are a "unique" response to not being able to have signage on M-24.

"They pay the person to walk up and down the street," she said. "I don't know what the problem is."

She noted during the summer months, Little Caesars Pizza on W. Burdick St. has its well-known mascot dancing on the side of the road and Wireless Toyz used to have a person dressed as giant cell phone in front of its downtown store.

Helmuth wouldn't mind if other businesses followed Pit Stop's lead. "It would be nice to have 30 people on the streets of Oxford all day, showing that we had some people in the businesses," he said. "Let's get'em all out there."

"I really don't have a problem with them, either," said Commissioner Marilyn Benner, who noted she gives Pit Stops' human signs "a lot of credit" for standing out there on those really cold days this winter.

Scott Polando, co-owner of Pit Stop Barbershop, expressed his gratitude to the planning commission for dropping the issue. "Thank you for being realistic," he said.

Polando told the commission he doesn't want his human signs to ever become a distraction or cause any type of problems downtown. "We surely don't want to put anybody in any kind of harm," he said. "We'll play by the rules."

The people that Pit Stop employs to wear sandwich board signs need this job, according to Polando.

"(For) some of them, this is their only form of income," he said. "They want to work. They don't want to sponge off of taxpayers. They want to do it."

Polando noted his wife, Angela Polando, the shop's co-owner and barber, went around the downtown and got signatures of support from other business owners.

With regard to whoever is complaining, Polando said he'd like to see if there's a way to make them happy.

"Somehow I think we're biting into our competition and our competition doesn't like that," he said. "I think there's a competitor behind this whole thing who dislikes the fact that we're actually making progress because of this."

"I've logged more hours out on that corner than anybody and I'm not too proud to do that. And it's paid dividends, by the way," Polando noted.

"If (other businesses) want to (use human signs), they can do the same thing," Angela Polando said. "We're not stopping anybody from doing it."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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