Clash with city over signs has Eaton Rapids' pottery studio owners weighing leaving town
EATON RAPIDS - When Jaime Lawson built and hung up eight new signs on the exterior of his business, Your Creative Escape, LLC, in early June, he was hoping the community would take notice.
He started the paint-your-own-pottery studio with his wife Traci Lawson eight years ago, and the couple had long believed that the aged, brick 6,000-square-foot building they occupy on Hall Street needed nicer signage.
Lawson said he spent between $300 and $400 on the wood and paint used to create the colorful purple and light green signs lining the front of the building.
"I was proud," he said. "People who drove down the street after they were up would come in and say, 'I just wanted to tell you how nice that looks.'"
A month after the signs went up city officials took note of them for a different reason. The signage violates an ordinance that limits the size and number of signs on building's in downtown Eaton Rapids, according to city officials.
The Lawsons and more than a dozen people who supported their effort to keep their signs voiced their concerns at an Eaton Rapids City Council meeting last month. Then, on Aug. 14, the city's Zoning Board of Appeals denied the Lawson's appeal of the city's directive.
All but two of the signs on the outside of the business have to come down and fines will follow if the Lawsons don't comply, city officials said.
That decision has the couple, who live in Eaton Rapids, considering a relocation of Your Creative Escape to another community.
"I'd hate to leave this town," Traci Lawson said. "The people are awesome. This is more than a studio. It's like a community center."
"But If you can't advertise your business how you want to, that's ridiculous," Jaime Lawson said.
Clashing with the city's ordinance
The community embraced their business soon after they first opened, the Lawsons said. It hosts open studio hours, along with special painting events.
The new signs were the couple's attempt at improving the building's aesthetic, Jaime said, and the visit from Building Inspector LeRoy Hummel in early July was a surprise.
He left behind a highlighted copy of Eaton Rapid's nearly 20-year-old sign ordinance, Jaime said. It allows for up two signs at the primary entrance to a business, and an additional sign at a secondary entrance.
The Lawsons said the city is "selectively enforcing" the ordinance, but Hummel disagrees.
"We don't do selective enforcement," he said Monday. "If we see a violation or take a complaint of a violation we enforce it."
Your Creative Escape sits just a few hundred feet from City Hall, Hummel said. He took note of the sign violation himself.
As of Monday he claimed the Lawsons had failed to remove the signage by the deadline he'd given them more than a week ago.
Issuing a fine of $150 is the next step for the city, Hummel said, and more fines will follow if the signs aren't removed.
Jaime Lawson said he and his wife never received a written notice directing the signs be removed by a certain date.
"He (Hummel) never said when they have to come down," Jaime Lawson said. "I would have done what he said."
Weighing a business move
Tuesday the signs still hung on the exterior of Your Creative Escape, and the Lawsons said they're waiting for written notification from the city directing them to remove them.
Their clash with city officials over the signage is proof, Traci Lawson said, that city officials can make doing business within the community frustrating.
"They haven't made it easy," Traci Lawson said. "It will be a miracle if we're still here next year at this time."
Eaton Rapids City Manager Aaron Desentz said city officials don't want the Lawsons to take their business to another community.
The city's sign ordinance doesn't distinguish between good or bad looking signs, Desentz said. It outlines perimeters for signage on a business, he said, and the city has made some exceptions over the years — though most of those allow for a sign that is slightly larger than outlined.
The city's Zoning Board of Appeals is allowing the Lawsons to keep its biggest sign, Desentz said, even though its slightly larger than what the ordinance allows.
"We want to see Creative Escape stay here," Desentz said. "However, we have a sign ordinance, and the sign ordinance has to be followed."
Jaime Lawson said the ordinance is out-dated, and needs to be revisited.
"We're not closing, and we're not positive we're moving, but we're looking at options," he said. "We're going to see what's available in other communities."
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