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Council rejects ban on outdoor sales downtown

September 22, 2010 - Downtown Oxford merchants who display their wares on the sidewalk can continue doing so thanks to the village council's opposition to banning the practice.

"I think this is taking it a little bit too far for local government," said Councilman Tom Benner. "I don't feel like I have the right to tell somebody that's paying the high-dollar taxes and invested in the community what they can and cannot do, within reason."

"Merchandising is key to retailers," said Councilman Tony Albensi. "To me, this is an example of over-regulation on a local government's part. I can't accept this."

Last week, council, in separate 3-2 votes, rejected the first reading of a zoning ordinance amendment regulating outdoor display, sales and storage, then shot down the first reading of an amendment to the village code designed to repeal a section that currently allows the sale of merchandise on sidewalks along Washington St. between Broadway and East streets.

The current zoning ordinance prohibits the display and sale of merchandise on sidewalks in the C-1 zoning district, which encompasses the downtown area. The proposed amendment that failed would have continued that prohibition.

However, the existing zoning ordinance is superceded by Section 58-63 of the village code, which allows such displays/sales within three feet of a commercial building's wall. This portion of the code has been in effect since October 1969.

For the past three years or so, both the village planning commission and Downtown Development Authority have been working to amend the zoning ordinance as it relates to outdoor displays, sales and storage.

The reason is there are some businesses who take advantage of things by displaying tons of merchandise, which clutters the sidewalks, causing difficulties for pedestrians. Such displays also look distasteful in some people's opinion and hurt the downtown's overall appearance.

"We have other merchants that are complaining to us. We have citizens that are complaining to us," said Planning Commissioner Sue Bossardet.

Village Manager Joe Young noted that the Covered Wagon Saddlery is the "biggest problem," however, he spoke with the owner and she agreed to reduce the size of her merchandise display, so it doesn't encompass her entire storefront.

Township Supervisor Bill Dunn, who attended the council meeting as a village resident, was opposed to implementing a ban for everyone "just because we have one or two being a pain in the butt."

"To completely outlaw it, I think is terrible," said Dunn, who also serves on the DDA board. "Maybe just kind of remind them (of the rules)."

Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth noted that "not that many business owners put things out on the sidewalk."

"If it was that important, there would be even more, but the ones that do, it creates pedestrian traffic problems," she said.

Benner and Albensi led the charge against banning outdoor displays/sales downtown because they believe businesses need every advantage they can get to stay alive.

"(With) the economic times (the way) they are, people need all the help they can get," Benner said. "If a display is put in front of their business in good taste, then it does attract business."

"In today's economy, as far as I'm concerned that's what it's about, for a business to be able to survive," said Benner, noting he doesn't wish to "put so many ordinances on them that it makes it more difficult."

Young noted he's heard positive things from the owners of Chic Antiques and Funky Monkey Toys, both of whom display merchandise outdoors. He said they informed him that their business increases when they set things out because it attracts people to their stores.

In Benner's opinion, business owners should be policing themselves and taking personal responsibility for their property's appearance.

"They should have the pride in themselves as a business owner to put out a display that is attractive and will help draw people into their stores," he said.

But Helmuth, who also serves on the planning commission, indicated the only way to regulate outdoor displays/sales in the downtown is to prohibit them.

"If you're going to regulate it, you almost have to just not allow it because the minute you allow one square foot it becomes 100 square feet," she said.

The trouble with relying on business owners to display things in a tasteful manner is taste varies from individual to individual, according to Helmuth.

"We understand the business owners need all the help they can get. We went over every possibility on how to regulate this and this is what they came up with," she said.

Bossardet agreed.

"We have studied this up and down and sideways and this is the only way that we could come (up with) to deal with it," she said. "It's not that we don't understand the times. It's not that we don't understand merchandising. Good taste is subjective."

Both Helmuth and Bossardet noted all the time and effort that went into proposing this ban and how the planning commission consulted with the DDA, Oxford Area Chamber of Commerce and merchants.

"I don't think there's anyone out there they didn't talk to," Helmuth said. "This is what everybody agreed is the best option for now."

"We have spent countless hours, countless meetings, (held) public hearings, trying to work with the merchants, trying to get some 'moderation' (and) 'good taste', and we see no return on that investment," said Bossardet, who noted the whole issue basically boils down to a "few abusers" who "refuse" to cooperate.

"This is not something we just looked at for a month," Helmuth added.

Having previously served on the planning commission, village President Teri Stiles could sympathize.

"I don't think there's a person on that planning commission that wanted to come up with this exact result," she said. "They wanted to give the businesses freedom, tasteful freedom. Unfortunately, taste is subjective. Perhaps, this is something that will wake those people (who are abusing the code) up."

Benner's main problem with the proposed ban was that it smacked of big government run amok.

"I just feel like it's too much government for people that are trying to make a living in a community, especially in these times," he said.

Benner went on to say, "Maybe government has gotten to the point where they feel like they need to regulate everything. I'm not saying that big government just started with this particular ordinance."

But Helmuth noted, "Government regulates things. It's what we do."

Regulating things like sidewalk displays/sales is "not big government, that's the role of the planning commission," she said.

Benner disagreed.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell (business owners) everything they can and cannot do to try to survive unless it comes to the point where it just looks like the Devil, then as a government official, it's partly my responsibility to step in (and) say to the ordinance enforcer maybe you should look at this," he said.

Helmuth pointed out one of the big problems right now is the existing code isn't being enforced.

"You can't tell me things are always within three feet of those buildings," she said.

The councilwoman noted the proposed amendments to the zoning ordinance and village code would solve the problem.

"This is going to make enforcement easier and following the ordinance easier – it's not allowed," Helmuth said.

There were a few, like Stiles, who talked about achieving some type of middle ground by allowing downtown merchants a small, defined amount of outdoor space to display their goods.

"I don't think that we should just allow outdoor storage everywhere, willy-nilly," she said "I think that we definitely need to look at that."

Dunn agreed.

"I think we've got to have some sort of compromise," he said. "These people need help to be able to merchandise."

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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