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Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Politicians need to stick to guns on sign bylaw

Cobourg council finds itself in a real pickle over the recent sign bylaw controversy with the King George Inn. It could be one that will prove damaging for some political careers later this year.
Owner John Lee is in contravention of the town’s new sign bylaw, updated only last November. The problem centres around two freestanding signs in front of his restaurant. There are other signs being used that do not comply with heritage aspects of the bylaw. The town finds itself in a tense situation. Lee has been before council pleading his case and the Chamber of Commerce has entered the fray during recent discussions at its regular monthly meeting.

To understand what is at stake, a quick look along major commercial streets in at places like Belleville, Oshawa and Peterborough only go to show what visual pollution can be easily create

Both Cobourg and Port Hope have made a serious attempt to control sign pollution. Back in 1993, Cobourg passed a sign bylaw making it very clear that the town did not want a mess. Everything from backlit signs, to mobile signs, to sandwich board signs was regulated. The subsequent heritage sign bylaw was introduced in 1994, placing a series of rules aimed at keeping the historic tone in the downtown. Port Hope has had its strict bylaws in place since 1981.

Since then there have been plenty of businesses in Cobourg that have complied with the rules, while a few have sought exemptions.

The town’s most recent review took place last year, along with public input and meetings. Only two or three submissions were made, according to the Chief Building Inspector Frank Lukes. Otherwise there was deafening silence from the business community. The results were a few changes.

Cobourg council might want to look at what is taking place in Port Hope. Its sign bylaw rivals Cobourg’s in being restrictive. Both towns share a desire to maintain the heritage aspect of their respective main streets.

Port Hope’s Heritage Business Improvement Area Chairman Ken Jones said in a recent interview, the business community enjoys a fairly good relationship with its council when it comes to signs. There has been a recent controversy over a banner sign for John Street, which the business improvement area board has endorsed. But he is confident the council and the people involved will be able to find a solution. It is far from the seriousness of the Cobourg situation, he observed.

The reason Port Hope businesses and council have been able to live in peace is simple. When a business decides to open in Port Hope, it is expected to live within the letter of the bylaws, including the rules around signs. It locates in the town because of its heritage look, he said. So why would a businesses not want to follow the rules, he added? Good question.

That leaves Cobourg politicians in the proverbial painted corner.

Politicians would appear indecisive, pandering to any cause that comes along if the bylaw is changed after only six months.

Cobourg council could provide Lee with an exemption under provisions in the bylaw. But if politicians take this route, it would be a slap in the face to every business owner who worked hard to follow the bylaw and spent the money to ensure it complied.

And what about those who did appeal the bylaw looking for an exemption and failed, like Maggie C, a women’s clothing store on Division Street. Any exemption for King George would be the ultimate insult to them. Council would be sending the wrong message: If you spend lots of money and hire lots of people, then you are different from the smaller businesses that don’t have the financial resources or employ as many people.

Just to make matters worse, the sign ruckus comes at a time when council is already in the bad books of the business community. The cancellation of the tourism contract with the Chamber of Commerce earlier this year has left a bad taste. (No surprise they are having plenty to say to council about business issues these days). On top of that, politicians have a number of downtown businesses upset over the upcoming reconstruction of King Street, leaving them angry about the potential loss of revenue.

If council is unable to keep Lee happy and the chamber off its back, then there will surely be repercussions. Lee doesn’t sound like he is ready to back off (a move that would bring a sigh of relief from council).

This controversy has no clear way out. It appears to be a lose/lose situation for council. If politicians can’t begin making peace with the business community, it may hurt them come election time in November. But any chance of an armistice will have to wait. The sign bylaw fiasco will not offer them that opportunity.

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