Photo by Jeanne RiceDrive around Costa Mesa, and you'll see all the signs of bureaucracy run amok—or rather, you won't see many signs at all. Thanks to suddenly zealous code-enforcement officials enforcing a formerly ignored city ordinance, local businesses have had to tear down, scrape off and throw out any posters, fliers, paintings or "signage" that cover more than an arbitrary 10 percent of their available window space. It's somehow supposed to "preserve and improve" the community, at least according to the citation received by Noise Noise Noise's David James, but what it has really done is leave a lot of storefronts looking uncomfortably naked and a lot of upstanding entrepreneurs—some of whom have had window decorations up for decades without any complaints—understandably pissed off.
"It's been nine years and 11 months we've had shit up in the windows," says James, owner of record store Noise Noise Noise on Mesa Verde East, "and there hasn't been a single thing to cause the city to unpreserve or disimprove or whatever. The neighbors don't care; the customers don't care. I wonder how taking down posters will 'preserve and improve' the community."
"A lot of people are unhappy about it," says Sandi Benson, Costa Mesa's chief of code enforcement. But the new city council has a new property-maintenance-intensive agenda, she says, and they've armed code enforcement with the extra manpower necessary to make sure every single piece of property—residential, industrial and commercial —is up to signage-regulation code. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it.
"The city overall is trying to make a completely different image—we're trying to make it nice and clean," she says. "If it were an issue of free speech—well, mostly, in all cases we're talking about advertising, and we certainly wouldn't want to impede on free-speech issues. We have a wonderful city—we just want to make sure we're taking care of it. I've already received calls about how nice and clean it looks."
But she has also received calls from people like James, who says he depends on his window art as a source of advertising, as well as to protect his fragile vinyl merchandise from sun damage. Free-speech issues aside, the law is really just hurting his business, he says.
Doug Parry, owner of independent Doug's Discount Records just up the street, feels his pain. Parry owns four Discount Record stores across Orange and LA counties, and until last year, when code enforcement told him to pull the Beatles posters out of the front window of his Costa Mesa location, he'd never been disturbed—not since 1982. Now, he says, business is down because his store is pretty much invisible, electric bills are up $150 per month because of the "merciless afternoon sun," and he figures he's lost $15,000 to $20,000 total during the past year.
"We pay rent; we pay taxes," Parry says. "They need to back the hell off and let us make a living. It's a typical example of bureaucracy getting out of hand."
To their credit, however, Costa Mesa code-enforcement officials aren't just hassling the small-business man—they're hassling every businessman they can get their hands on. The venerable Wahoo's at Bristol Avenue and Baker Street has had to dispose of 12 years' worth of stickers, and Jackie Lopez, restaurant general manager at two Pizza Hut locations in Costa Mesa, says she has had to strip one of her stores practically bare after 11 years with no trouble—even down to signs instructing customers where to park.
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"I asked them when the law changed, and they said it's what it has always been," she says. "The response was that they have new people in office, and they're trying to follow up. But they have not been consistent. We have another Pizza Hut in Costa Mesa, and you name it, they have it: they're able to have a carry-out parking sign, banners and window paint—and I can't. I got no visibility because I got no signage."
So now business owners are gritting their teeth and looking for some kind of advertising alternative. Benson says that business owners are welcome to call her to discuss signage options, that banners (as long as they're attached at all four corners) are perfectly permissible, and that as long as a display doesn't touch the glass, it won't violate the 10 percent rule. "But what difference does it make?" asks Parry. "If you can't see in, you can't see in." James has a different approach: utilizing his new display (tastefully arranged on less than 10 percent of the glass, of course) to detail his running battle with code-enforcement officer Bob Baumgardner. But what he and other business owners really want is the right to use their windows for something more than looking through—as they have been for years.
"I want 100 percent back," says James. "I think I deserve it as a taxpayer. Obviously, code enforcement are not doing their job if it takes them 10 years to figure this out."
And now, it seems, they're doing their job a little too well. Oh, and the next time somebody is riding in the City Hall elevator—tape measure in hand and signage regulations in pocket—take a peek at the permit by the door. When we visited a few days ago, it had already been expired for a week. You preserve and improve our community, and we'll preserve and improve yours.