A new ordinance has turned Cape police into signbusters

Thursday, June 29, 2006
Laura Nutting of Cape Girardeau was surprised to hear that her pink yard sale sign posted on a telephone pole off William Street violated city ordinance. Patrolman and nuisance abatement supervisor Ty Metzger took down Nutting's yard sale sign and brought it to her house to make her aware of the new sign ordinance.

I n the two months since the sign ordinance took effect in Cape Girardeau, nuisance abatement supervisor Ty Metzger and two other patrolmen in the division have been awfully busy.

"This is our busy time of year anyway. In the summertime we get a lot more animal calls and a lot more calls for weeds and trash complaints. So when you add that on top of what we're trying to get accomplished with the new ordinance, it's just been a lot of things to do," Metzger said.

Metzger estimates they have logged 40 hours of overtime dealing with the sometimes contentious ordinance passed by the city council April 17 and put into effect 10 days later.

The ordinance restricts the use of garage sale signs, reaffirms the prohibition of signs in city rights of way, bans almost all banner signs and restricts most types of temporary signage to one per property.

Political signs, the most abundant type of signage, are considered constitutionally protected free speech and are effectively untouchable, according to city attorney Eric Cunningham.

Wednesday morning Metzger was at the helm of his patrol vehicle scanning the streets for noncompliant signs.

"We realize that this ordinance has not been enforced in the past, so it does make it more difficult to tell somebody who's had their sign out there that now they can't do it," he said. "But at some point it's like anything else. We have to draw the line."

His first stop highlighted the delicate nature of enforcing the rules. It was a Winks Convenience Store at the corner of Lexington Avenue and Perryville Road. The gas station has long displayed plastic temporary signs advertising sales on beer. Under the new ordinance those signs are illegal.

Metzger walked into the store almost sheepishly and, flashing an apologetic smile, broke the news to clerk Don Diamond.

"Don, those Coors Light signs out front are actually not allowed anymore, so I'm going to have to ask you to take them down," he said.

Diamond and co-worker Jamie Hinton quickly complied but were not thrilled with the law.

"We do depend on those signs for advertising," Diamond said. "People aren't going to know what's on sale. Around here everybody drives around to look for specials, and they'll go to a store that has the best deal advertised. I guess the only methods we can use are inside the store now."

Metzger gave a sympathetic nod and a shrug of the shoulders to the complaints but couldn't escape the wrath of Don's daughter, Stephanie, who was working behind the counter.

"Do you like being a cop?" she asked.

"I've been one for 11 years," Metzger said.

"Well, I don't like cops," she said.

Metzger slunk out of the place trying to avoid further conflict. "Don't hate me," he said quietly.

Hinton walked in cradling the signs. "I don't hate you. I may not like you a whole lot right now, but I don't hate you," she said.

Back in the patrol car, Metzger confided that the human element can be the most difficult part of his job.

"Sometimes when you start to go to these businesses they want to take their frustrations out on you, and they just hate you. They take it personal with me. Like I personally am trying to take away their rights. And that's the really tough part," he said.

Winks wasn't the only violator at the Lexington-Perryville corner. Wire signs stuck in the grass on the city right of way advertised a farmers market. Metzger yanked out the signs, threw them in the back of his vehicle and headed downtown to alert the owners.

Temporary wire signs of this nature are never allowed on city rights of way. Signs for real estate or not-for-profits are allowed one to a property assuming the owner's permission is granted.

The market organizer was not at all upset at having his signs removed.

"I think the sign ordinance is the best idea the city has ever had," said vendor and co-organizer Martin Scharenborg. "I don't blame them one darn bit. If people are putting out garage sale signs and they don't have enough responsibility to take them down after they're done with them, then the city should take them down."

Scharenborg said he would remove all the signs he had placed around the city and added that he has already seen a positive effect from the ordinance.

"I can actually see the road signs now. Even after I've lived here in Cape for 67 years, I still don't know where I'm going sometimes. There are too many signs to choose from on the utility poles and everywhere else," he said, laughing.

But Metzger couldn't dwell on this positive feedback. There were still more signs to collect and more violators to inform.

Hot pink "garage sale" signs were stapled to utility poles on William Street, flapping in brazen violation of the ordinance.

The ordinance allows for one on-premise garage sale sign only to be kept up during the time of the event. The sign must be kept out of city rights of way, which are generally reach 10 feet back from the curb.

When the proprietor of the sale, Laura Nutting of 1111 Bloomfield St., was informed of her offense, she was indignant. "I didn't know anything about it. I'm from Arkansas, and you can advertise garage sales there," she said. "I think this is crap. I mean how are you supposed to have a sale if you can't put a sign up? I've never heard of such a thing in my life."

This reaction was par for the course, said Metzger, who calmly listened to the complaints, explained the ordinance and went on his way.

Metzger acknowledged that recent efforts are little more than the first step in enforcement.

"We're still in the first phase trying to educate people, and we'll give them time to become compliant," he said. "We're trying to work with them whenever possible. We're not the Gestapo or something out there to tear down everyone's signs."

Council member Marcia Ritter, who rode along with Metzger several weeks ago, said she has seen a positive change from the ordinance, particularly along Kingshighway. On her ride-along she told angry business owners to direct their complaints towards the city council, not the officers. "I told them the officers are just out there doing their job and enforcing the changes we made," she said.

tgreaney@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 245

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: