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Sign ordinance may force
removal of business shutters

(6/19) Imagine going through Emmitsburg and seeing one of the town’s beautiful historic buildings with shutters painted hunter orange with bright green polka dots while the building next door has handmade shutters stained dark with two words painted in black on each shutter.

Which shutters would you prefer?

In Emmitsburg, the orange shutters with polka dots are allowed. The stained shutters with words aren’t.

In a situation demonstrating the difference between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law, the Town of Emmitsburg has told the owners of Main Street Sweets that their window shutters are signs and must be changed or they will be fined $100 a day.

Wendy Gray and her partner Jennifer Wisner have run Main Street Sweets on the Emmitsburg square since March 2006.

“They (the town) say since there’s lettering on the shutters, they’re considered signs,” Gray said.

The shutters are considered signs under the town’s newly revised sign ordinance because the words painted on the shutters serve as an advertisement for Main Street Sweets. As signs, the shutters violate the ordinance because 1) they aren’t permitted; and 2) no signs are allowed on the second stories of businesses.

Mayor James Hoover agreed that the shutters are attractive, but “We cannot legislate by how attractive it is.”

However, as signs, the shutters also meet the spirit of the sign ordinance: “The intent of this section is to produce signs which are non-obtrusive and blend with the character of the village zoning district. The purpose of these signs are to advertise to pedestrian traffic and vehicular traffic.”

Town Planner Sue Cipperly said she has no problem with the shutters from a personal viewpoint but they are in violation of the sign ordinance.

“Sign ordinances are very complicated and they need to be fair and equitable and consider freedom of speech. They’re not easy,” Cipperly said. She added that Emmitsburg’s sign ordinance is “not well constructed in an easily usable way.”

Town Manager Dave Haller doesn’t necessarily agree. He pointed out that when the sign ordinance was updated, business community input was specifically sought in order to make the ordinance business friendly.

Libby Briggs with the Emmitsburg Business and Professionals Association said that the EBPA did provide its input, but she believes there should still be a way to allow for something that nobody dislikes.

Gray said her goal had been to make the shutters attractive and something that that fits in with the town character.

“We purposely did it so it’s not outlandish or distasteful,” Gray said. “It’s an old town. It’s an old building and we wanted to keep it in that era.”

She said she even talked with Frank Henry, the town’s code enforcement officer, about the town regulations before they made the shutters and were told there weren’t regulations on shutters. Haller said Gray didn’t mention that the shutters would have words on them; otherwise, she would have been told that the shutters would be considered signs.

Haller suggested that Main Street Sweets paint over the words or cover them in some way to keep the shutters. Then Gray can apply for a permit to keep the words on the lower shutters. Hoover also added that Gray might be able to get a text amendment to allow the shutters.

Gray said the town is nitpicking with this whole situation. Haller said that town staff wasn’t going around looking for violators, but they have to investigate complaints that are registered. According to an e-mail acquired from a Freedom of Information request to the town, the town received one complaint about the shutters and it was from Planning and Zoning Commission member Patrick Joy.

Hoover said that despite this incident, he still considers the sign ordinance business friendly.

Gray disagrees. “Basically the town is pushing Jen and I out of town,” Gray said.

Read other news stories related to the Emmitsburg Town Government