UPDATE 11:30 A.M. DEC. 12: Mitchell Cleaners owner Jessica McLauchlin met with DeLand city officials this morning and was advised that, because space on her property is limited for a monument-style sign, she may qualify for a hardship variance that would allow her business to keep its rooftop sign. There will be an application and approval process, but McLauchlin reported that city officials have offered to help guide her through the process.
ORIGINAL STORY: A number of iconic signs around DeLand may soon disappear from the city’s streets, as officials begin to enforce a long-standing but long-delayed sign ordinance.
In city officials’ eyes, the crackdown has been a long time coming, representing a 20-year-long effort to make the community’s aesthetics look cohesive.
To others, however, the forced removal of large, midcentury signs like the ones at Won Lee Chinese Restaurant and Mitchell Cleaners comes across as a needless stifling of creativity, and a destruction of part of the city’s recent history.
A recent post by Mitchell Cleaners staff on the business’s Facebook page lamented the city’s insistence that the business remove its rooftop sign, which sits atop the overhang of the 309 N. Woodland Blvd. business.
“We are so so so sad to see our sign go,” a representative of the business wrote Dec. 6. “The City of Deland [sic] has passed a no-roof-sign policy and is making us take it down.”
More than 120 people commented on the post, nearly universally in support of the business and its sign.
Mitchell Cleaners owner Jessica McLauchlin told The Beacon she received a letter around August informing her that if she didn’t take the sign down, her business could face fines. The letter came as a surprise.
“I had absolutely no idea,” she said.
McLauchlin met with city officials Dec. 10, and she said they encouraged her to apply for a city grant that could help her get a new sign, like the monument-style signs used by the 7-Eleven next door to her business and the Courtyard Marriott hotel across the street.
She said she can’t feasibly install such a sign on her property, because of her building’s expansive overhang.
“Just because of the way my business sits, it’s not feasible for that type of sign,” McLauchlin said.
She’s also concerned about a possible loss of business if her decades-old rooftop sign is removed.
“I’m afraid I’m going to lose too much business if I take my sign down, because people will think I’m not there anymore,” she said.
McLauchlin said she has a meeting scheduled with City Manager Michael Pleus, to see if a solution can be worked out. She also said she plans to appeal to the City Commission over the issue.
The fact that city officials have waited so long to enforce a 20-year-old ordinance is also vexing to her.
“I don’t really understand why they’re kind of cracking down now, if it was an ordinance passed in 1999,” she said. “It kind of seems like they’re digging up old stuff to kind of go around and scrutinize businesses.”
Other businesses running afoul of the ordinance include the Publix shopping center at 299 E. International Speedway Blvd. and the Family Food Mart gas station at 701 W. New York Ave., because their signs are too tall; along with the KFC restaurant at 1408 N. Woodland Blvd. for its pole-mounted sign lacking a pole covering.
The issue stretches back to 1999, when the city passed an ordinance tightening the rules for signs in its gateway districts — areas along the roads leading into Downtown DeLand.
The ordinance sets a number of requirements for signs, such as a maximum height, a maximum square footage of the sign itself, and a requirement that the poles of a pole-mounted sign be “sheathed or covered.”
It prohibits several types of signs, such as those on top of businesses’ roofs, like the one at Mitchell Cleaners. Most electronic signs are also prohibited.
In an effort to soften the blow on business owners, city commissioners initially gave them a 10-year grace period before the new rules would go into effect.
At present, just fewer than two dozen “non-conforming” signs remain in the city’s gateway districts.
“Basically, they gave businesses a 10-year period to basically amortize whatever signs they had, and by 2009 they would have to comply,” City Manager Michael Pleus said.
As the May 17, 2009, deadline neared, however, the economy took a sharp downturn, leading commissioners to punt the deadline out to May 17, 2013.
“We were still kind of not recovered from the recession” at that time, Pleus said.
Commissioners then voted for another extension, to May 17, 2019.
Pleus said city officials sent letters in March to businesses with nonconforming signs, reminding them of the impending deadline.
At a May 20 meeting, city commissioners noted that dozens of businesses were still out of compliance with the 1999 ordinance.
“The City Commission had a discussion this summer, and they said ‘No, it’s time. Everybody needs to comply,’” Pleus said.
They voted for one more extension of the deadline — this time, to Dec. 31, 2019.
Pleus said reading some of the comments on the Facebook post about Mitchell Cleaners’ sign was frustrating. In his view, city officials have been more than flexible in notifying business owners of the new rules, and of grant monies available to help them offset the cost of new signage.
“We sent out another letter over the summer, announcing we had grants,” he said. “The comments made it seem like they hadn’t been notified at all.”
The city made $20,000 in grants available for improvements at businesses in the city’s gateway corridors. Each business can apply for up to $2,500 in matching-grant funds to offset the cost of new signage, or for other improvements to their properties.
As of this writing, $6,000 in gateway grant funds are still available. The deadline for grant applications is 4 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13. More information is available on the city’s website, www.deland.org.
“We’re compassionate. We’re not monsters,” Pleus said. “We understand that it’s a cost burden to comply.”
At this point, for city officials, enforcing the long-standing but long-delayed ordinance is a point of fairness. Over the years, most businesses have come into compliance with the new rules, with only 20 businesses still out of line as of Dec. 10.
“Now we’re down to the last of [the non-compliant businesses], and it raises the question of fairness that everyone else in the city had to comply, but these last 30 or so properties — is it right to let it go, or do we have to stay the course?” Pleus asked rhetorically.