Fines for Okey Dokey signs: $19,000

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 13, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — The Okey Dokey & Co. General Store in downtown Salisbury has accrued $19,000 in fines for storefront signs the city says are illegal.
Co-owner Stan Williamson removed the signs Thursday after the Post asked about the fines accruing at a rate of $250 per day. The 20 handpainted signs advertising merchandise like “buttons” and “kitchenware” had replaced an awning that burned in April 2010.
The total square footage of all signs on the storefront far exceeded the allowable limit in the city’s sign ordinance, said Chris Branham, code services division manager.
Williamson said he would have taken the signs down earlier if he’d known the fine was growing by the day.
“It was not clear that the fine was accumulating,” co-owner Bette Pollock said.
Pollock said she received a letter from the city months ago notifying her of several code violations, including the signs. She said she called the city three times but never heard back.
“I assumed it was no longer an issue,” she said.
The city gave Okey Dokey owners ample notice of multiple code violations, Branham said. He provided to the Post four letters dated from October 2010 to February 2011, which he said he mailed to Pollock’s home and hand-delivered and mailed to the business.
The final letter, dated Feb. 24, states a daily fine of $250 will begin accruing Feb. 25 for a sign ordinance violation and will continue until the violation is corrected.
Pollock said she only received one letter.
Branham said he met with Pollock and Williamson in April, at Pollock’s request. They gathered at the back of the store to discuss an outdoor storage area and a building constructed of glass windows, which both violated city code.
Branham said he mentioned the ongoing sign violation during that meeting.
Williamson dismantled the glass building, which he said was a greenhouse and served as a sales model. He acknowledged he had been temporarily using the greenhouse for storage, which is illegal.
Furniture and structures made from reclaimed materials like doors and windows are the majority of Okey Dokey’s business. Williamson builds and paints the pieces behind the store.
He admitted the back of the business was an eyesore.
“I did have one hell of a mess back there,” he said. “Every time I tried to clean it up, I made it worse.”
The area is still piled with construction materials, but Branham said it looks better.
“They have vastly and greatly improved the way it looks back there,” he said.
Branham said near-constant complaints from downtown merchants, people who park near the back of Okey Dokey and neighbors sparked the inspections and subsequent citations.
The city fined the business for no reason other than because it violated the ordinances, he said.
“We are not treating them differently than anybody else,” he said. “They had the same guidelines to follow as every other merchant.”
The city even went the extra mile, hand-delivering the citation letters, Branham said. The city will negotiate with the owners on the $19,000 fine, he said.
“The ultimate goal is not to make $20,000 off of signs but to bring someone into compliance,” Branham said.
He said he would consider reducing the fine to the original $150 citation, issued before the daily fine started accruing. If he’d had to remove the signs himself, Branham said, the larger fine would have stayed in place.
Williamson and Pollock said they feel like the city has been harassing them. Their greenhouse was attractive, they said, and the signs were an appropriate addition to the front of the store.
They have worked hard since buying the former O.O. Rufty’s in 2001, luring tourists to Salisbury with their unique business, Pollock said.
“The city doesn’t know what kind of a jewel it has,” she said. “You just don’t find stores like this anymore.”
The city should be helping merchants, not giving them a hard time, Pollock said.
“There are people out there in violation of much worse things, things that look terrible,” she said. “They should be spending their time on that.”
The Okey Dokey situation is unusual, said Randy Hemann, executive director for Downtown Salisbury Inc.
“We have not had many issues like this but when we have, they seem to have emanated from people not pulling permits, not asking about the regulations before they do work, or not attempting to work with the city,” Hemann said in an email.
The city has revised the sign ordinance to accommodate reasonable requests, he said, including the marquee for the Norvell Theater.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.