WAILUKU - Maui County Mayor Charmaine Tavares' administration wanted to make it clear this weekend: It is not "cracking down" on illegal business signs, but potential remedies are on the way.
The recent burst in enforcement is complaint driven, said Tavares and county spokeswoman Mahina Martin on Saturday. And the majority of complaints are coming from businesses - mostly in Kahului - with owners who have been reporting each other, which in turn triggers the requirement for Planning Department inspectors to go out and investigate, they said.
"Some people feel like they're following the law, so they think, 'Hey, why should someone else be able to get away with something,' " Tavares said.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
The county deems these window paintings at Wailuku Florist, photographed Sunday morning, to be acceptable within the sign ordinance. But many signs in violation can be found, and a meeting about enforcement and possibly revision of the sign ordinance will be held Thursday.
There should be some viable solutions on the table soon, the mayor said. Tavares and Council Member Joe Pontanilla, who holds the Kahului residency seat, will host a public meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at Pomaikai Elementary School to discuss the issue with residents and business owners.
Although the law is intended to protect Maui's natural beauty and keep commercial centers from looking tacky, this spate of complaints has gotten out of hand, they said.
"A re-evaluation of the ordinance and possible legislation to change that particular law could result," Martin said.
From January to July, the county has received 51 complaints, she said. That's more than all of 2009, with 43 complaints, and 36 complaints in 2008, Martin said.
"It's puzzling why the amount of complaints are larger than in previous years," Martin said.
An inspector typically gives the business owner an opportunity to remove the problematic sign before a citation is issued, county officials said.
The focus on Thursday is going to be on window signs, Tavares said, noting that the law's definitions in this particular area can be confusing.
The mayor used Wailuku Florist as an example of window advertising that is acceptable. The Main Street business' window has images of pretty flowers and green vines and leaves.
That is OK, Tavares said. It is a "generic" sign, as is an American flag or "Happy Mother's Day," she said. What has become "clutter" are all the windows out there with phrases such as "two-for-one" or "half-off today," Tavares said.
But there are fixes within the existing rules, she said. If a business operator's lot and location allows him or her to have a 24-square-foot sign, and only a 12-square-foot sign is used now, the remaining 12 square feet is available for use, Tavares said. She also said businesses may not be aware that hours of operation postings don't count against square footage.
Maui Chamber of Commerce President Pamela Tumpap recently weighed in on the issue, blaming both the administration and what she described as an archaic and inflexible sign ordinance, which is Chapter 16.13 of the Maui County Code. During difficult economic times, business owners deserve a break, she said.
Martin said county officials will first address the issue of people painting their windows with words and images to attract customers.
The law is complex and designed to be tough in order to retain "the natural beauty of landscape, view and attractive surroundings of the county," according to its description. The ordinance, last amended in 2002, aims to protect Maui's beauty and its appeal to visitors.
A perusal of the law shows that the sign ordinance is set up to be more liberal in business districts and much more restrictive in neighborhoods and rural or scenic areas, such as Hana and Makena. Size, location, type and number of signs are all based on where a business is situated and how big it is.
For instance, a building in a commercial district with 80 or more feet of frontage and set back at least 100 feet from the road can have the county's maximum sign size of 64 square feet. Meanwhile, a real estate sign to sell a house can be 9 square feet at the most.
A number of promotional signs are also banned outright in Maui County, such as inflatable, mechanical and flashing signs, which have clearly become more visible in recent years despite the law. Portable signs are also illegal; so are signs that refer to "an activity or other use" not on the same lot as the sign, according to the law.
People might not be as aware of what is allowable and what's not because a permit is required only when a business owner wants a variance, county officials said. However, sign makers - at least good local ones - should know the law, too, they said.
The ordinance can be found online at library7.municode. com/default-test/home.htm?infobase=16289&doc_action=whatsnew.
Hawaii is known for its statewide ban on all billboards. But sign opponents complain that Maui businesses have taken liberties with their locations along roads and highways to put up signs and advertise in way that is essentially like a billboard.
Meanwhile, business sign proponents, like Tumpap, call Maui County's ordinance "maddening."
She said one Maui company that went under recently was told it couldn't have a "going out of business" sign up. That hurt the operators' efforts to get rid of stock, Tumpap said.
"At a time when businesses are struggling to get customers through their doors and are looking at inexpensive approaches to do that, business owners are floored to have to take needed signage down," Tumpap wrote in an opinion piece for The Maui News last month. "We all support reasonable regulation but do not see the harm these signs create."
She called it obsolete legislation.
The administration is very concerned about business, the mayor said. The chamber is misrepresenting, or oversimplifying, the situation, she said.
"We want to accommodate them, but we've got to go out and hear from both the community and businesses first," Martin said. "I believe we (can) come up with a compromise, and hopefully folks will see it that way, too."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.