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Pols Back Small Businesses Slammed by Sign Busts

No fines for our signs.

That was the message at an “emergency rally’ held Weds., Dec. 5 on the steps of City Hall in defense of small businesses which have been blindsided by the Department of Buildings (DOB) for sign and awning violations, they 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, local pols say, small mom-and-pop shops are suddenly getting slammed by surprise fines.

“Our government should not have an arrow in its quiver that can effectively close a small business with the stroke of a pen. Fines to small businesses should be reserved exclusively for issues that put public safety at risk,” Councilmember Justin Brannan told this paper. “Is the business making people sick? Is the business putting customers in danger? Is the business ripping people off or treating people unfairly? Anything else is punitive and arbitrary.”

The issue, he said, could very well shutter stores in his district. According to a report by NY1, United True Value Hardware at 7905 Third Avenue had a large awning outside of its store for at least three decades. No one cited it as an issue until several months ago, when the DOB fined the biz almost $8,000.

Brannan is certainly not alone in his concerns. He was joined on the steps of City Hall Wednesday by Councilmembers Rafael Espinal (Brooklyn), Peter Koo (Queens) and Mark Gjonaj (the Bronx), as well as Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and representatives of small businesses from all five boroughs.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our community, employing more workers than any other industry,” urged Espinal, who has penned a bill which would place a temporary moratorium on signage enforcement activities. “Let’s stop giving our tax dollars to billion dollar corporations and invest it in those that need it most – our small businesses.”

“We need to get rid of these insane civil penalties. Otherwise we are allowing people to weaponize the 311 system,” Brannan added. “Right now anyone with a grudge can call 311 and cripple a small business.”

Brannan is no stranger to the ups and downs of owning a small business. He 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.

The Art Room is also no stranger to this type of fine. Brannan told this paper that, only after he started speaking out against the onslaught of violations, Leigh received one of her own.

“Even my wife’s been fined,” he said.

When reached for comment, Andrew Rudansky, the DOB’s senior deputy press secretary, stressed that the agency only enforces what it’s tasked to by the City Council.

“As laws are passed, we are legally required to enforce them,” he told this paper, pointing to two new laws passed 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 more than 30 other councilmembers.

Signs have needed a permit since the 1968 building code came into being, Rudansky went on, adding that the DOB is not doing anything differently now 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).

“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.

Each complaint, Rudansky stressed, does not end in a violation. He also said that the DOB does not issue the fines – just the violations. The rest is handled by the New York City Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, where those on the receiving end of violations are ultimately given the chance to defend their signage, and, in turn, their business.

Rudansky also said that, while falling signs remain a rarity in New York, it does happen, as one did in Bay Ridge earlier this summer, though that storefront’s non-permitted work spanned well beyond its signage.

“We are not targeting businesses around Brooklyn for sign-enforcement efforts; rather, our inspectors typically investigate sign complaints in a neighborhood when they are in the area for other matters,” Rudansky said. “There is nothing wrong with an owner wanting to hang a sign outside their business to draw in customers, but for the safety of pedestrians walking underneath, it must be permitted by the city and put up by a licensed professional who can do the work properly.”

Still, Brannan maintained, there are fairer ways to go about this.

“I appreciate that the Buildings Department is obligated by law to respond to these complaints,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is change the law so that if a Buildings Department inspector sees that a sign is secure and in no danger of falling down, they should close out the complaint and issue no fines or penalties to the business owner.”

Espinal agreed, and pointed the finger right back at the DOB.

“Whether you call it investigating or targeting, small business owners should not have to pay the price when agencies don’t follow the law themselves,” he told this paper. “Legislation dating back to 2005 (Int. 0668-2005) states that the Commissioner of the Department of Buildings is obligated to create an educational outreach program concerning awning regulations. The fact that awnings and signs that have been up for decades are now receiving DOB violations, which do result in fines, whether or not the fines are administered by DOB, only goes to show that this educational program failed those it was intended to serve.”

ebrooklyn media/Photos by Todd Maisel 

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