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County Council takes action on confusing sign ordinance

By Staff | Nov 4, 2010

Some 207 Lahaina Intermediate School students qualified for the first quarter “Wet & Wild Reward Day” in the Renaissance Partners in Living and Learning Program. The ongoing program recognizes students for academic, citizenship and community service achievement. Held last week Friday on the LIS Athletic Field, the event was organized by LIS counselor Todd Hayase and his staff of Cindy Koyama, Lori Koyama, Becky Altier, Ahn Arakawa, Darrel Munetake, Jessy Valeria, Tom Norton, and Ui Kua‘ana. Hayase congratulated all of the student qualifiers and thanked the parent support group, Ron Tolbert of 007 Productions, the school cafeteria staff and LIS’ custodial staff. Photo by Walter Chihara.

WAILUKU — Last summer, something other than coffee was brewing at Maui Coffee Roasters in Kahului. On a balmy August morning, store owner Nick “Nicky Beans” Matichyn received a puzzling phone call.

An inspector from the Maui County Planning Department was waiting to speak to him about an illicit storefront sign — one that had been displayed for more than 12 years in the shop’s window facing Hana Highway.

Matichyn was informed that the sign in question — a horizontal vinyl banner positioned over the front door emblazoned with the words “Voted Best Coffee In Maui” — was not in compliance with county code.

Needless to say, Matichyn, along with his employees, were buzzing with bewilderment and some degree of frustration.

“I was told that the sign was illegal, because it included the word ‘coffee,”‘ he said. “He (the inspector) explained that signs couldn’t advertise what was being sold inside… basically, they told me I could replace the word ‘coffee’ with any other word but ‘coffee.'”

Is your brow is furrowed in confusion? Well, you are not alone.

The ten-year-old business sign code is a relatively obscure law that was passed in 1999 and amended in 2002. It was enacted with the intention to maintain Maui’s rural charm and erect a legal barricade against the blight plaguing urban areas.

However, it has been a complaint-driven ordinance; that is, enforcement occurs when a grievance is filed with the county. And in the last year, according to Maui County Spokeswoman Mahina Martin, the number of complaints has risen from 36 in 2008 to more than 50 in the last ten months.

In the case of Maui Coffee Roasters, a complaint against a neighboring business yielded a subsequent investigation of all businesses within the same tax map key.

“No one filed a complaint against (Maui Coffee Roasters),” said Matichyn, “but I was cited anyway.”

Matichyn isn’t alone. County inspectors have paid a visit to several business owners in Kahului and beyond. For many, the infraction comes as a complete surprise — followed by a whirlwind of frustration.

One Central Maui business owner, who insisted he remain anonymous for fear of retribution, compared the enforcement of the ordinance to a McCarthy-era witch hunt.

“Here (on Maui) we have a law that pretty much no one knows about, and it’s only enforced when someone makes a complaint,” he said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous, and it contradicts the spirit of aloha in the worst way possible.”

For local sign makers like Doug Allen, owner of Island Sign in Kahului, this issue has been one of paramount concern. Allen, who has testified extensively before the County Council and joined the campaign to amend the ordinance, is convinced as to why the dormant law surfaced with such vigor.

“I think this has become a topic this year because of one fact in particular,” he said. “That was because several dozen ‘complaints’ were filed with the county Planning Department.”

Allen explained, “When the offense is determined to be a noncompliant sign, that determination could be delivered in the form of a written citation, with fines indicated for failure to remove the noncompliant signage.”

For a business struggling to stay afloat in a lackluster economy, this penalty could cause a serious financial headache.

An outspoken advocate for small businesses, Maui Chamber of Commerce President Pamela Tumpap joined the crusade to amend the existing legislation.

“The chamber’s involvement in the signage issue began months ago, when Councilmember Joe Pontanilla, hearing complaints, started addressing the matter with the Planning Department and the chamber,” said Tumpap. “We, too, began hearing from businesses that had met with inspectors and shared this information with the public while reaching out to Mayor Charmaine Tavares.”

What resulted was a true representation of democracy in action. Determined to change the existing law, Matichyn contacted County Councilman Sol Kaho’ohalahala, chairman of the council’s Planning Committee, who, without hesitation, agreed to place the issue on the agenda for review.

Shortly after, Mayor Tavares, who has admitted the law — particularly the rules governing window signage — is vague in its scope and application, was receptive to the idea of amending the language of the ordinance. Subsequently, an eight-member ad hoc committee — including both Matichyn and Allen –was established to craft a resolution that clearly outlines signage rules and regulations in a logical framework.

“The old rules didn’t make any sense,” said Matichyn, “so we set out to fix it.”

Additionally, throughout October, the Maui Chamber of Commerce hosted a series of meetings to collect input from residents to submit to the council’s Planning Committee.

“This is a good civics lesson for everyone,” said Matichyn. “Until we stop complaining and actually start doing something, nothing will change.”

Indeed, less than three months after he was instructed to take down the sign above his front door, it is likely the law is about to change.

Earlier this month, a resolution to amend the sign ordinance passed its first reading at the Maui County Council, and the second reading, which is scheduled for next week, is expected to pass — a sign of good things to come for business owners across the Valley Isle.

“We did our civic duty and we developed common sense solutions, instead of dancing around the problem,” said Matichyn. “That’s what democracy is all about.”

For more information about the Maui County sign ordinance and the efforts to amend the existing law, visit the Maui Chamber of Commerce website at www.mauichamber.com.