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Clarification Needed for Retail Displays

Wed, 03/04/2020 - 12:25

Shopkeepers in East Hampton Village are not supposed to display wares outside their premises. Nor are they supposed to place signs in public view without meeting several standards. This even applies to “open” signs, as the owner of a high-end toy store on Park Place has learned.

In a decision by East Hampton Town Justice Lisa R. Rana, Colleen Moeller was found guilty for having an outdoor chalkboard that read, “Welcome to Petit Blue.” Village code enforcement had charged Ms. Moeller with improperly displaying merchandise along with the illegal sign; however, as Justice Rana decided, there was not enough evidence to prove that a near-life-size stuffed golden retriever was indeed part of the Petit Blue inventory.

By upholding village law, Ms. Rana’s message to village business — and cultural — establishments is that the sign law is valid. But to the village board the message is that the law should be clarified.

Whether or not shopkeepers may feel they are entitled to special treatment, village residents have long supported strict limits. This is why the street sides are free of the commercial clutter seen in the town’s jurisdiction. Real estate signs are a single (if understudied) exception in the village, since there are strict rules about their placement, size, and how long they may be displayed.

But the bigger issue facing village officials is selective enforcement. Ms. Moeller’s chalkboard drew enforcers’ notice, but numerous other instances, even in residential and historic districts, have not. One business that needs to be brought into compliance right away is the Stop & Shop grocery on Newtown Lane.

An often cited misconception is that state agriculture law allows markets to skirt local regulations. The state does allow farmers and food producers to sell directly to consumers with fewer restrictions than other retailers might face; it does not mean that resellers enjoy the same rights. In fact, the law is very specifically aimed at benefiting New York’s own domestic growers, makers, and harvesters — not out-of-state farms. Those hulking Southern watermelon bins outside the grocery do not meet the criteria, for example.

One adjustment that the village board might well consider is developing a procedure to review applications for small, temporary business signs. The present law sets a fee and has steps for getting approvals for standard signs. Perhaps a simplified, fast-track way for shopkeepers at properly business-zoned premises to get the okay for small, movable announcements should be found. The law might not need to be so tough that an “open” or even “welcome to . . .” message is out of bounds.


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