A Month After Widespread Protests, City Council Passes Moratorium on Sign Violations

In what can be classified as a big win for small businesses, the new “Awnings Act” was passed by the City Council on Weds., Jan. 9.

The bill – championed by Councilmember Rafael Espinal and co-sponsored by Councilmember Justin Brannan – imposes a two-year moratorium on the issuance of sign violations, as well as creating an interagency task force which would use that same time period to come up with long-term solutions to various sign permitting issues.

Furthermore, the bill creates a temporary program which will assist those business-owners who have violations on the books dating back to June 1, 2006.

“I am incredibly proud to have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our small business community to create the Awnings Act,” Espinal said Wednesday. “Unfair penalties have burdened small businesses to such an extent that some were worried they would have to close for good. Today, we are changing that, and delivering relief to our small business community.”

The act’s inception came on the heels of an emergency rally on the steps of City Hall last month at which owners of citywide mom-and-pop shops, especially, aired their grievances with the Department of Buildings (DOB). The assemblage came as countless businesses claimed that they’d been blindsided by the agency for sign and awning violations that, politicians like Espinal contended, 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; towards the end of 2018, a growing number of small businesses – many of which have had signs hanging for decades – were 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 and get a large chunk – 75 percent – of their money back.

The legislation also reduces the permit fees for hanging a new sign.

As tensions heightened on the issue, the DOB denied any increase in focus on signage. Instead, it cited a sizeable increase in the number of 311 complaints made about signage – most notably in Brooklyn.

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

“Frankly, unless a business is making people sick, endangering the public, or treating people unfairly, I don’t see why the city should be fining them at all,” said Brannan, a pol who is no stranger to owning a small business (prior to his election, he co-owned the Art Room in Bay Ridge alongside his wife, Leigh, who now carries the torch – and, last year, was hit with her own signage fine). “This bill will help small businesses with signs they thought were perfectly legal but have suddenly been targeted with exorbitant fines. I’m proud to stand up not only for businesses facing new violations, but also for businesses that have already paid these unfair penalties.”

From here, the bill will head to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s desk to be signed, after which, certain provisions will go into effect immediately.

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