Mayor Paul Soglin believes illegal business signs are spoiling Downtown and parts of the city and intends to crack down with enforcement and perhaps new rules.
"There are areas of the city ranging from State Street to the area around East Washington Avenue and Johnson Street to Mineral Point Road rife with violations," Soglin said. "Frankly, parts of the city look like crap."
Madison ordinance prevents sandwich board-style signs from blocking pedestrian sidewalk access, signs taking up more than 20 percent of window space, and permanent real estate signs, among others. Soglin said violations of those provision are his biggest concern.
Soglin's move is creating a dust up with the business community, which says signs are vital, the city's current complaint-based enforcement policy works fine, and that Soglin is manufacturing a problem.
Soglin, who has been meeting with business leaders in recent weeks, agreed to delay enforcement to allow for education about the sign code and for parties to explore options.
"I'm getting tremendous push back from certain business groups," he said. "I've been willing to back off a month or two. I'd like to see voluntary compliance."
The mayor said education will be followed by enforcement followed by a look at the signage landscape to determine the need for ordinance changes.
Downtown and business leaders agree some signs are poorly made, too big or put in wrong spots, such as sandwich boards in the middle of sidewalks. But most signs are reasonable even if they technically violate the sign code and do no harm while helping people learn about and find businesses, they said. Some even contribute to the aesthetic of places like State Street, they add.
"Signs are important to all businesses," said Delora Newton, executive vice president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. "The mayor is doing some positive things to improve the business climate in Madison, but changing the city's enforcement policy at this time sends a contrary message."
Sachi Komai, co-owner of Anthology, 218 State St. and president of the Greater State Street Business Association, said, "Many business owners don't realize sign boards are illegal. They see their neighbors have them. Businesses have had them for years and never got a fine."
Nancy Jensen, director of the Apartment Association of south-central Wisconsin, said some landlords or management companies wrongly leave signs up after units have been rented, but that many properly advertise vacancies or provide information.
Komai, Jense and others said the city should first educate business owners if it wants to enforce the sign ordinance.
The debate isn't new. In 2000, businesses near State Street successfully challenged the city's sandwich board rules in municipal court, which led to an easing of enforcement. In 2009, the city updated its sign code in an effort to balance creativity, fast-changing technology and visual pollution.
Currently, the city responds to complaints, cracks down on egregious cases, and makes occasionally sweeps along thoroughfares like East Washington Avenue or Stoughton Road, zoning administrator Matt Tucker said.
The city has had 232 cases — complaints, field observations and referrals — so far this year, and had 448 in 2011, Tucker said.
Ald Mike Verveer, 4th District, said Soglin and business leaders have valid points. "I do think signage has gotten out of control in many respects," he said. "I don't share the mayor's zeal for zero tolerance. I hope we can find a happy medium."