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WA: Sequim policies hurt business, some merchants say about sign rules, ‘impact’ fees

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

Posted 3/27/2013

SEQUIM, WA –– Is the city of Sequim anti-business?

Many owners of businesses between downtown and the big box stores on the west side of the town that is a commercial center for the North Olympic Peninsula, say yes.

“Dancing with them has just been . . . insane,” said Karen Kester, owner of Karen’s Sequim Sewing Center inside the Sequim Village Center, 609 W. Washington St.

Restrictions on curb-side advertisements and impact fees charged on new businesses have prompted an onslaught of outrage from the West Washington Street business community toward City Hall.

Linda Engeseth, owner of Crumb Grabbers Bakery, 492 W. Cedar St., was shocked when city officials told her she would have to pay a $17,000 fee to offset new traffic patterns when she moved her bakery to a house at the corner of Cedar Street and Fifth Avenue.

“Because I was changing the use of a property that had been vacant for a year and a half, I had to pay for this study I couldn’t afford,” she said.

City officials consulted a professional engineering manual and determined Engeseth’s bakery would draw traffic similar to that of a fast-food restaurant.

A compromise solution allowed Engeseth to avoid the fee by closing before the 4 p.m. peak traffic time specified in the manual.

“And they told me if they saw I was open after 4 p.m., they would fine me,” she said.

City Manager Steve Burkett said the fees are standard practice.

“If your business has an impact, it needs to pay for that,” Burkett said.

“The big boxes out west paid those fees and didn’t blink twice. It’s standard in every city.”

While some in the business community blame the city’s regulations for a 26 percent drop in the number of businesses, city leaders say they have “bent over backwards” to respond to complaints.

“I don’t know how much more accommodating the city can be right now,” Mayor Ken Hays said.

“If somebody brings us a problem, we work to solve it.”

Engeseth was recently allowed to stay open past 4 p.m., after a study showed traffic in her business’ neighborhood peaked between noon and 2 p.m.

Sequim’s retail economy boomed last decade, when national retail outlets — known as big box stores — cropped up like lavender bushes on the city’s western edge.

The state Department of Revenue ranks the city as 23rd out of 281 in sales tax revenue per capita.

But last year, the city had 485 business licenses registered, a steep drop from the 656 registered in 2008. Sales tax revenues fell 9 percent in 2012.

Hays said that drop is a correction to a market that boomed beyond sustainability.

“I think that has absolutely nothing to do with the city and the city’s fees and the city’s policies,” he said.

“People who expect growth to continue at inflated rates of 6 or 7 percent are kidding themselves,” Hays added.

Said Burkett: “I think it has more to do with the economy and the market and lower consumer spending.”

Mike Hallis, owner of Jeremiah’s BBQ, 825 W. Washington St., disagrees.

Small businesses don’t get the same attention from the city because they don’t contribute the same tax income as the big boxes, he said.

“So if we struggle, it doesn’t make that big an impact on the city’s books,” Hallis said.

Kester is one of the many business owners who have complained that a new sign ban has eaten into their revenue.

Because of the new rule, she can’t place her “Quilt Shop” sign on the main drag during the city’s many events that draw quilters to the area, she said.

Hays questioned the effectiveness of the signs, adding the sign rules were intended to reduce distractions for drivers on Washington Street and to prevent visual “clutter.”

“I don’t think a wild proliferation of signs is something we want,” he said.

But business owners say the restrictions have lessened their ability to attract customers to their specials.

Chris Farmer, owner of Domino’s Pizza, 755 W. Washington St., said his carry-out business fell 67 percent after the city banned him from advertising curbside.

Hallis echoed a West Washington Street refrain that the city’s rules favor downtown businesses, where signs are allowed on sidewalks.

“What I want is a level, predictable playing field for all business, no matter what neighborhood we’re in,” Hallis said.

But Hays sees the situations as being very different.

“Those sandwich boards actually work in the downtown area,” Hays said, “because people are strolling, they’re promenading and looking for things.”

It is because of that high volume of foot traffic, Hallis said, that downtown merchants don’t have the same need to advertise along the street.

“It’s hard for us to get people to look at us because they’re focused on other things as they drive by,” he said.

Hallis added downtown businesses have an inherent advantage because landscaping and parking around their businesses is city property maintained by the city.

When former Mayor Walt Schubert paid the city’s first sign fine for the offender, Randy Wellman of Tarcisio’s Italian Place at 609 W. Washington St., he did so, he said, to make a point about how the city’s attitude toward its small businesses has changed.

“There were, I think, some people in the community who thought we were too open, too accommodating to business,” Schubert said.

That sentiment ushered in a new roster of city leadership with new priorities for the city’s future, Schubert said.

Said Burkett: “Our vision, the council’s vision for the community, is to be a vital economic location while still maintaining a small-town environment.”

But Kester thinks the city should do more.

“If they want us to look unique, they should be bending over backwards to help our small businesses out,” Kester said, “instead of stepping on our necks.”

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