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Zoning rules put iconic signs in jeopardy

Chris Dorst
The Budget Tapes & Records sign, with its hippie and clouds of incense, is showing its age. Its owners hope to get a zoning variance to replace it or install a smaller version.
Chris Dorst If zoning board members approve, the projecting neon Firestone sign will be removed and restored to its original '60s-era condition.
Chris Dorst Mayor Danny Jones says restoration of the Fountain Hobby Center sign is a key to upgrading the West Side.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Zoning regulations often provide a good excuse for Charleston officials to get rid of old signs that are too big or tall to meet current standards.

Once you take an out-of-compliance sign down, even for repairs, you can't put it back up without getting a variance from the city's Board of Zoning Appeals.

On Thursday, three business owners hope to convince zoning board members that their signs are special -- historic, even iconic -- and deserve to be preserved.

There's Budget Tapes & Records, where a peace-loving hippie has been gazing at MacCorkle Avenue traffic for 41 years.

Downtown, Reaford Walker hopes to make two vintage signs at the Firestone tire shop -- one vertical, one horizontal -- look good as new.

In Elk City, Fountain Hobby Center has the mayor in its corner.

"It's something you see when you cross the bridge into the West Side," Mayor Danny Jones said of the giant key-shaped sign that hangs off the corner of the building at Bigley Avenue and Washington Street.

The neon-lit sign, which dates back to 1947, hasn't worked properly in years, a store employee said.

Reaford Signs can fix it but would have to take it to the shop for sandblasting, repainting and electrical repairs. But because projecting signs like this are not allowed under city zoning laws, it needs a variance to be re-hung.

"Whatever it takes, we'd like to see it fixed," the mayor said Tuesday. "The aesthetic value of the sign means a lot. I've been on this kick for 10 years -- if we're going to make the West Side look good, you have to start there."

Store owner Shirley Morse also has the backing of West Side Main Street, which has promised a $1,000 grant for the repair, director Stephanie Johnson said.

Budget Tapes & Records co-owner Priscilla Pope said the zoning board previously turned down her request to replace the existing wooden sign with a similar metal-clad version. Her variance application, like the one for Firestone prepared by Reaford Walker of Reaford Signs, calls for removing the existing 10- by 15-foot sign and replacing it with a 5- by 15-foot aluminum one with just the name of the store.

Still, Pope would prefer to keep the original design. "I'm going to ask them to approve the same sign in metal," she said. "It's been our logo forever. We started in the hippie era, back in the '70s. That was the way everybody looked. It's a hippie-looking guy. He's got a Budget T-shirt and a peace symbol belt buckle.

"We're one of the last local businesses left in the area," Pope said. "The downtown's gone. [The sign's] been around for years. It's historical."

Charleston zoning laws have forbidden projecting signs since before 1983, said Dan Vriendt, the city's planning director. "I don't know the rationale," he said. "Probably aesthetic."

But those rules may be changing, especially as city officials are poised to adopt new comprehensive and downtown redevelopment plans under the Imagine Charleston process.

"The idea of projecting signs ... we want to allow signs of historic value and have a discussion on whether to have projecting signs at all," Vriendt said. "That's something where we would want community discussion.

"It's safe to say this office is always an advocate for historic preservation. We have talked about a text amendment [to the zoning law] to allow historic signs to be modernized. If we did that, it would be something among other suggestions from Imagine Charleston.

"The Firestone sign and the Fountain Hobby signs, these are historic in nature," Vriendt said. "These are unusual in that almost every case you want to bring nonconforming signs into compliance.

"In many cases, nonconforming signs are too large or too tall. But these are reasonably sized signs and they have historic value."

Johnson said projecting signs make sense on the West Side.

"As you pass businesses, if you don't have a hanging sign, it's kind of hard to see the business, especially in the Elk City district."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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