Awning Act will save Bensonhurst merchants, Board 11 predicts

New legislation passed by the City Council to prevent the Department of Buildings from cracking down too hard on merchants over their store awnings is giving Bensonhurst business owners a chance to breathe easier, local officials said.

Community Board 11 Chairperson Bill Guarinello told his members at the board’s Jan. 10 meeting that the Awnings Act will help protect merchants from excessive government fines.

“The fines were very egregious,” Guarinello said.

In recent months, store owners around the city have been hit with fines as high as $6,000 for violations such as failure to obtain a permit to erect a sign. According to New York City building codes, signs larger than six feet require a special installation permit. But the codes had not been enforced for many years, according to community board officials, who said many of the signs have been up for 20 years or more.

On Jan. 9, the council passed the Awnings Act, a bill sponsored by Councilmember Rafael Espinal, a Democrat who represents East New York and Cypress Hills, that slaps a two-year moratorium on issuing fines for sign violations. Under the bill, which was co-sponsored by Councilmember Justin Brannan, a Democrat representing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and parts of Bensonhurst, an interagency task force will be set up to look closely at the issue.

“Unfair penalties have burdened small businesses to such an extent that some were worried they would have to close for good,” Espinal said in a statement.

The legislation also creates a temporary program to provide assistance to business owners who have violations on the books dating back to 2006.

“This bill will help small businesses with signs they thought were perfectly legal but have suddenly been targeted with exorbitant fines,” Brannan said when the legislation passed.

The bill has been sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio for his signature.

Community Board 11 officials applauded the bill’s passage.

Businesses in Bensonhurst and Bath Beach, two of the neighborhoods the community board covers, have been hit hard by the fines, officials said.

“It’s a tremendous burden on small businesses,” District Manager Marnee Elias-Pavia told the community board.

In addition to the fines, merchants can wind up spending upwards of $12,000 to remove the violations, Elias-Pavia said.

Community Board 11 contains several commercial areas lined with small, mom-and-pop shops, including 86th Street, 18th Avenue, Bath Avenue and Bay Parkway.

There was a significant jump in the number of anonymous complaints called into 311 over store signs in Bensonhurst and Bath Beach last year, according to Elias-Pavia. In 2018, there were approximately 125 complaints. In 2017, there were only 15.

The New York Times reported that more than 2,000 calls were made to 311 citywide in 2018 about alleged violations of signage laws, twice the usual number.

The complaints were forwarded to the Dept. of Buildings, which is obligated to dispatch inspectors, officials said.

In November and December, as word spread across the city of the inspections, many merchants took matters into their own hands by pulling down the signs themselves to avoid fines.

As a result, the entire look of the streetscape in local shopping areas changed, Elias-Pavia said. It adversely affected the ambiance of the entire neighborhood, she added. “When you see signs pulled down, it looks like they’re abandoned storefronts,” she said.

“It looks like a third world country,” Guarinello said.

In December, the community board voted unanimously to request an investigation by the Mayor’s Office of Operations to determine if the complaint calls were generated for financial gain.

Additional reporting by Meaghan McGoldrick

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