Jan. 11, 2019 By Christian Murray
The City Council passed legislation Wednesday that aims to protect business owners from hefty fines for failing to comply with obscure rules that govern the display of storefront awnings.
Small business owners throughout the city have been hit with fines of up to $6,000 for not following the letter of the law concerning their store awnings. The fines have dealt with failing to get a permit to erect them to the wrong sized font.
The Department of Buildings has imposed the fines after receiving a raft of 311 complaints. Many of the non-compliant business owners, who had their signs up for years, had no idea they were in breach of code. The rules are extremely specific and include how far an awning can be from the sidewalk to the size of the font.
The legislation, called the Awnings Act, passed the council 45 to 1 and all outstanding fines will be waived once Mayor Bill de Blasio signs the bill into law.
The bill puts a 2-year moratorium on the DOB’s ability to issue fines relating to the signs. Furthermore, the DOB would be required to develop an education program for the business owners and review the existing rules.
In recent months, business owners in heavily-hit areas have been tearing down their signs in fear that they will be subject to huge fines, which could force them to close.
The DOB has not had a deliberate campaign to conduct an awning blitz. Instead the agency has acted in response to complaints, which have been clustered in specific commercial districts. Areas such as Bay Ridge and Ditmars Park, Brooklyn, and Flushing have been hit hard.
The number of 311 complaints concerning business signage/awnings doubled in 2018 vs 2017, according to city data. From Nov. 1, 2017 until present, there were 2,069 complaints–with 1,119 in Brooklyn followed by 512 in Queens.
Dozens of business owners on Union Street in Flushing have removed their signs. The corridor has become a barren strip of exposed brick and cement awnings.
Council Member Rafael Espinal, who represents the 37th District in Brooklyn, said that business owners in his area began being hit with fines about two years ago. He said that it has caused great hardship, since not only are the fines steep but the business owners have to pay for a replacement sign.
Caitlin Kelmar, a spokesperson for Espinal, told the Queens Post that a local sign maker was the source of the 311 complaints—as a means to drum up some business.
Espinal put together the legislation about a year ago but initially didn’t get much in the way of support until business owners in other parts of the city were also getting fined.
On Tuesday, Espinal and Council Member Peter Koo held a rally in Flushing to bring attention to the bill.
“This legislation is about delivering relief to small businesses,” Espinal said. “Walk up Fulton Street in my district, or here in Flushing, and you can see first-hand the toll that this enforcement blitz has taken on our mom-and-pop shops and family-owned restaurants.”