Hard Stop on Signage Fees as City Council Secures New Awning Act

Owners of mom and pop shops throughout the city can sleep a little easier now that the City Council and the mayor have formalized a new Awnings Act which will waive fees which could be damaging for some smaller business owners.

The agreement, just finalized by Brooklyn Councilmember Rafael Espinal and Mayor Bill de Blasio, comes on the heels of an emergency rally held earlier this month on the steps of City Hall.

The presser spotlighted small businesses which have been blindsided by the Department of Buildings (DOB) for sign and awning violations that, politicians like Espinal claim, haven’t been enforced at this volume in years.

According to city building codes, signs larger than six square feet require a special installation permit, though, electeds say, small mom-and-pop shops – many of which have had signs hanging for decades – are suddenly getting slammed by surprise fines.

Under the new legislation, the hundreds of businesses that have been slapped with fines up to $6,000 for signs hung without permits will not have to pay a dime. Furthermore, those that have already paid the fine will be offered discounted rates on permits for installing a new awning or sign.

According to Councilmember Justin Brannan, those shops which have already paid will only need to fork up about 25 percent of the paperwork cost of their new signage.

Brannan is no stranger to these types of fines. The pol once owned the Art Room, a fine art school for children on Third Avenue, alongside his wife, Leigh, who has carried the torch herself since his election — and just recently received her first awning violation.

His district, which encompasses a swathe of southern Brooklyn including Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst, had been hit hard by the recent spike in related 311 complaints. Just a few blocks away from his district office is United Home Center, a hardware store at 7905 Third Avenue which was recently slapped with a summons for signage that’s more than four decades old.

“I was elected to fight like hell for the people who call my district home and that includes the many small business owners who keep our neighborhoods vibrant, unique and strong. Once I heard about this sign issue, I rolled up my sleeves and went to work,” Brannan told this paper. “The bottom line is this: Our government shouldn’t have an arrow in its quiver that can effectively close a small business with the stroke of a pen. Any fines to small businesses should be reserved exclusively for issues that put public safety at risk. To me, anything else is punitive and arbitrary.”

The act will also allow for any general contractor to hang awnings or signs, expanding the market beyond the 20 to 30 previously approved and licensed hangers. This, Brannan noted, will cut costs dramatically for some businesses.

Perhaps most notable, however, is the immediate moratorium the act establishes on the DOB’s ability to issue fines for the awnings, the key to immediate relief for businesses that have been impacted.

When reached for comment for this paper’s previous reporting on the issue, Andrew Rudansky, the DOB’s senior deputy press secretary, had stressed that the agency only enforces what it’s tasked to by the City Council – and that it doesn’t itself issue the fines; the New York City Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings does.

“As laws are passed, we are legally required to enforce them,” he told this paper, pointing to two new laws passed by the City Council in 2017 pertaining to these types of violations: Local Law No. 188, which resulted in the creation of a real time enforcement unit within the DOB, and Local Law No. 156, which upped the penalties for work without a permit to its current minimum of $6,000.

The latter, Espinal helped introduce. As did Brannan’s predecessor Vincent Gentile and another 29 councilmembers. (Espinal, in response, pointed fingers right back at the DOB, adding that an educational outreach program promised by the agency had failed, and that “the fact that awnings and signs that have been up for decades are now receiving DOB violations,” is only proof of that.)

That said, signs have needed a permit since the 1968 building code came into being, according to Rudansky, who contended that the DOB was not doing anything differently in its recent spate of violations than it has done in over five decades, and that the majority of violations issued on signage are for not having had a permit to put it up in the first place (permits, he said, are meant to discourage shoddy workmanship and corner-cutting which can prove dangerous).

Nor, he said, did the sudden focus on signs originate with the DOB. “In general, we inspect business signs when we receive complaints from the public about them,” he stressed.

That said, there has been a sizeable increase in the number of 311 complaints made about signage – most notably in Brooklyn.

According to figures provided to this paper by the DOB, there were 1,046 complaints made year-to-date re: illegal signage – up 736 complaints from 2017’s 310. Manhattan has seen 251 complaints year-to-date (down four, thus far, from last year’s 255) while the Bronx racked up only 97 as of November – up only slightly from last year’s end-total of 69.

Both Brannan and Espinal have alleged that the spike in complaints could just be masked attacks on small businesses, many of them immigrant-owned.

With that in mind, the two are counting the Awnings Act – which will also include the creation of an awnings task force – as a win for the city.

“The Awnings Act will effectively hit pause on this craziness and give us time to work things out while offering relief for small business owners who are already getting squeezed from every angle,” Brannan said. “With retail on the ropes and companies like Amazon cannibalizing everything, shopping local has become the conscientious thing to do but it’s not always the most convenient thing. The last thing these small businesses need is another fine to deal with it.”

Espinal agreed.

“The Awnings Act will put a stop to the signage fines that have been causing so much pain for our small businesses, and provide relief for businesses that have already been the victims of unfair enforcement,” he said. “The recent news about Amazon serves as a reminder that small businesses in our city are under a tremendous amount of stress, with the rise of e-retailers and big box stores and skyrocketing commercial rents threatening their very existence. The city should not be adding to their woes by issuing exorbitant fines based on laws they didn’t know existed. I want to thank my colleagues in the Council for supporting this legislation, and most importantly express my gratitude to the business owners who sounded the alarm when the ticket blitz began.”

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