Government watch | Deli owner challenges Lee’s Summit on mural-like signs

04/15/2014 11:31 PM

04/15/2014 11:32 PM

A downtown deli owner is challenging Lee’s Summit’s rules for painting signs on exterior business walls, saying they’re overly restrictive and impractical.

Dave Kemp, owner of the ’Bout Thyme Deli on Douglas Street, had an artist in late March depict a large sandwich on the north side of his stucco building between Third and Second streets.

Kemp said he knew he needed a permit, but didn’t fill out the application because it required a description that he didn’t have until the artist completed the job. He said his intention was to take a photograph of the wall into City Hall to get the permit. But immediately that week, the city notified him he had to paint over the sign.

Kemp has refused and instead is asking the city to rework its ordinance.

Bob McKay, director of the city’s planning and codes department, said that city staff has decided to delay enforcement until the Planning Commission and City Council can review the regulations. The planning group is to take up the issue April 22.

Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street Inc. also has asked for a law change to better regulate murals, McKay said. It was decided to give Kemp a chance to argue for his mural as part of the broader discussion.

McKay said he’s not recommending changes, citing the long-term maintenance challenges that painted wall signs present for the city.

In Kansas City’s downtown, for example, faded signs painted 50 years ago are evident on walls.

The rules being suggested by the Main Street group wouldn’t do anything to save Kemp’s sign, because they, too, prohibit “commercial” speech in murals.

Donnie Rodgers, assistant director of Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street, said the group proposed the codes amendment to promote public art, but with guidelines that work with the city’s new downtown design standards.

“We’ve seen in community after community how much an economic driving force the arts can be in downtown revitalization,” Rodgers said. “Murals are great public art. We want to encourage more public art downtown.”

The Main Street group reviewed ordinances from communities including Lawrence, Oshkosh, Wis., and Muskogee, Okla. The proposed ordinance includes prohibitions on treatments that could damage historic buildings.

Kemp said the city told him that if the artist had painted a historical scene, it wouldn’t have violated the ordinance. McKay said that’s correct.

But because the wall depicts the enterprise going on inside, it’s defined as commercial speech and requires a permit and has to meet guidelines, McKay said.

Kemp questions why he’d paint a picture on the wall that isn’t related to the deli.

“How’s that going to help my business?” Kemp asked.

Kemp said hand-painted messages on walls were a frequent method for businesses to advertise in the past, so are appropriate for the period look downtown wants to promote.

He said the city would allow him to paint the sign on a metal sheet and attach it to a building, a requirement he thinks is superfluous. The sign, he added, is helpful for letting people know the deli’s location, making it more visible as people approach downtown.

“They wonder why nobody survives down here,” Kemp said. “I’m fighting this because that’s what I do.”

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