How to put up a sign in Portland. Wait. What were the rules again?

Is the city of Portland’s Inspections Division biased against gay business owners, or is it just another maddeningly dysfunctional bureaucracy? That’s the question raised by an incident this past winter involving a sidewalk sign advertising an antique shop downtown. After researching this matter for several days, I believe I have the answer.

Last fall, Flick Gehrig, owner of Found, and Peter Winchester, who curates the shop’s collection of antiques and decorative items, bought a self-standing wooden sign to place on the sidewalk outside their business. The shop, which opened a little over a year ago, occupies a street-level space on the High Street side of the State Theatre building. Its façade has been obscured by scaffolding for many months, and motorists zipping along the two-lane, one-way arterial slow down to notice Found (or parallel park here) at considerable risk to their lives, so the sidewalk sign was especially helpful to this business.

Last January, a uniformed city inspector came into Found and asked Winchester where their sidewalk-sign permit was, asserting that it was supposed to be prominently displayed in the front window, Winchester said. Winchester didn’t know anything about such a permit and said the inspector also told him Found could be fined “anywhere from $50 to $150” for each day henceforward that the sign was on the sidewalk without the required paperwork.

Winchester said he and Gehrig promptly contacted the city to get the permit, and “even that was a ridiculous joke.” It took over a week and “probably nine or 10 phone calls between different people,” said Winchester. The business had to provide photographs of the sign and its exact dimensions and location, produce proof of insurance that also insures the city against any damages caused by the sign (up to $400,000), and go through an additional layer of review — at an additional cost of $50 — because the sign would be placed in a designated historic district. The total cost, not including everyone’s time and labor, was over $75.

In accordance with the inspector’s demand, as well as wording on the permit itself (“display this card on principal frontage of work”), the document was placed in the shop’s front window. Out of curiosity, Winchester then walked along Congress Street to see how many other businesses with sidewalk signs had permits on display. He couldn’t find any.

I walked through downtown and the Old Port this week and also saw dozens of signs, but not a single permit. Winchester was at a loss to explain why Found seemed to be the only business in the city required to pay for this permit and put it in the window. The only theory he could come up with was that the city targeted them on the basis of their sexual orientation.

“If somebody can provide me with an alternative explanation other than that, that’s reasonable, but I have to wonder,” he told me.

In my wanderings, I saw two gay-owned establishments downtown with sidewalk signs and no permits. And when I talked with other business owners who have signs on the sidewalk, it soon became clear that the problem is one of incompetence, not intolerance.

One Old Port shop owner told me she’s had her sign out for years without any contact from the city regarding a permit. Up the street, a restaurateur said the city demanded payment for a sidewalk-sign permit years ago but never said the permit had to be displayed. Another shop owner paid the city over $300 for two signs (one on the sidewalk, the other above a door), never got the actual permits, and left the signs out anyway.

“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness afterward than get permission beforehand,” said another restaurant owner (quoting a third Portland restaurateur), who had a sign on the sidewalk for several years before an inspector showed up to inquire about a permit.

The only thing all these accounts had in common was the difficulty of dealing with City Hall. The word “nightmare” came up more than once.

The city’s new communications director, Jessica Grondin, was also confused by all the different rules and forms when I asked her to look into this matter, but she was ultimately able to confirm a few facts. The sidewalk-sign permit does not have to be displayed, and there is no daily fine for putting a sign out without the proper paperwork. The city just asks business owners to remove the sign until the permit is procured, she said.

“We’re sorry that somehow [Winchester and Gehrig] feel they have been given [misinformation],” Grondin wrote in an e-mail to me. “We’d welcome them to come in or call and talk further to clear this up.”

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.