Sign wars: Confusion reigns when the medium is the message By Chris Woodall Montreal is infamous for the battles between the "tongue troopers" — the language law enforcers — and the anglo or other ethnic business owners who dare to have signage without French wording. A business sign is as personal for the owner as his or her own name. What it looks like and what it says mean a lot to the retailer. In Whistler, if you take away the language element, the fight looks similar: retailers trying to put their best "face" forward, versus municipal officials sticking their noses in to tell the businessperson to change the sign or lose it. That's how the retail side sees it. From Whistler Bylaw's point of view, if they don't enforce the rules guiding business signs, Whistler would soon look like some trashy strip mall instead of the best ski resort in the known universe. The complaints from the retail side are loud and persistent, yet the bending or out right breaking of municipal sign bylaws is widespread. Mom and pop boutiques do it. Whistler/Blackcomb does it. "There's a certain amount of confusion," says Chris Bishop. His business card says he's a municipal planning technician, but when it comes to signage, he's the Sign Pope. Bishop's "confusion" comment goes for both sides: of retailers not doing their homework before spending thousands of dollars on a spiffy new sign, and of Bylaw officers a little too zealous when it comes to enforcing the law. When Katmandu moved from Function Junction to open its sporting goods store in Marketplace, the owners attached three balloons on either side of their sign to celebrate their opening. A Bylaw officer came by to order the balloons removed that same day. Bishop admits the officer was a little hasty. "For a grand opening, if the balloons were up for a day or two, that's fine." The same goes for banners announcing the store's initial presence, but they have to come down after a few days. Banners in general are prohibited unless they promote a community event. There are limits to how long the banner can be up and where it can be hung. Sorry, but "Buy one get two free" is not a community event, nor is posting a banner that is nothing more than a corporate logo. Whistler/Blackcomb is in trouble here. Go to the Blackcomb Day Lodge and look for the Fuji film and Owens-Corning banners. Sorry, big guy, they are not allowed. If the Fuji and Owens-Corning banners had words to the effect of promoting a particular ski or snowboard event, however, then they can stay up while the event is on. Banner violators are everywhere. Moe's Deli & Bar has more than one. And then there is Mountain World. The super arcade's transgressions are, literally, huge. It has massive banners hanging from the Conference Centre banner poles that are not supposed to be there. Colourful, yes, but also illegal. "The banners are going to have to come down," Bishop says. The stairway entrance to Mountain World presented another problem. "The painted entry, while not a sign, was a concern," the sign pope says. The garish colours and cartoony design doesn't fit in with Whistler's resort look. "But when we looked at the alternative of keeping the grey concrete walls, we decided the painting fits in with what they are about," Bishop says. Lighting is always a challenge. Neon signs are not permitted, but can be hung in the window. But even this has its problems. "They are the ones that drive us nuts," Bishop says. Many businesses have neon "OPEN" signs, which Bishop says are strictly not wanted because they don't add any artistic value to the look of the location. The Village Square liquor store, however, has a quite acceptable neon golfer and skier that is "really well done," in Bishop's view. As for strings of lights, anything that flashes or "runs" is outside the law. "If the lights are steadily on, that's okay," Bishop says. "We don't want a Las Vegas scene here." Sandwich boards are verboten, too. Popular with a range of retailers, from clothiers like Le Chateau to Whistler/Blackcomb's Wizard Grill, they have to go. "They clutter things up, especially for snow clearing in winter," Bishop says. "The sandwich signs tend to get farther and farther away from the store front." When one retailer gets nabbed for violating the sign bylaws, the first thing he or she is apt to say is why Store X up the street gets away with the same thing. "If we don't spot it, we can't act on it," Bishop explains. "If we get a complaint we can act on it." A lot of times it's merely a case of the retailer not having obtained their sign permit. "I believe there's a sign permit along with the business permit," Bishop says, perhaps hinting that new retailers are being wilfully ignorant of completing the sign permit form... and the $40 fee for each sign. The sign police can be flexible, as long as the retailer works with them and shows some imagination. Take the Delta Whistler Village Suites hotel, for example. The large complex on the main drag into Whistler Village was looking for a different sign and came up with the idea of lettering along a massive rough-hewn log. Strictly speaking, that sign would be illegal because it isn't attached to the premises. But Delta was given the thumbs up when the sign design went to the municipality's design panel and then to the public art committee. "It has halo lighting (each letter is lit from behind), which is more desirable than face lighting that clutters up the sign area with hardware," Bishop says of the negotiations that went on. It's thought the logs will look even better as landscaping matures to provide a lusher look. The Pinnacle Hotel is another case where the sign, although separate from the building, was allowed. It was a sheet of blue-green glass etched with the hotel's name and lighted from below, until vandals broke it. The black granite slab that replaced the glass, however, leaves a lot to be desired, Bishop says. "They went with that because they needed something up for the season." In another case, negotiations solved a sign fight involving the Crab Shack. The Crab Shack felt that its location, just outside the main pedestrian village area, justified hanging a sign that faced the highway — a big no-no. The Crab Shack argued that it had to have some way to make its presence known because foot traffic wasn't naturally flowing by its door and so needed exposure to passing vehicles. "Our policy in the past was to allow very limited signage facing the highway because it gives Whistler a strip mall feel," Bishop says. The compromise is to allow the sign, but powered at a lower wattage than normal so it isn't as gaudy as it might be. An unresolved contest of wills continues between Bylaw and Kypriaki Norte restaurant. Located in the Timberline Hotel, Kypriaki's front door is set back from the sidewalk enough that if you stand on the sidewalk between Buffalo Bill's and Mountain World, you can't see it. Owner Kike Redondo would like to put a sign facing east into the village at the base of the stairs leading to his entrance. He can't because the sign isn't attached to the building proper. "It's a big investment and I work my ass off here," Redondo says of operating a restaurant. "It's frustrating to see places next door and they're packed, but friends coming up from Vancouver say they can't find your place." "At times it seems a bit bureaucratic," Bishop admits. "But for the most part we try to work with the applicant. There is an appeal process: they can go to council for a review. "The retailer shouldn't assume that if they can't have one kind of sign that they can't have another type," Bishop says. Changes to Whistler's sign bylaws are in the works, but they won't be happening over night. The latest sign bylaws came into effect in 1989. "We're trying to bring the bylaws into the late 1990s by looking at what other resorts are doing," Bishop explains. Sign bylaws can effectively help the look of a resort a lot, but Whistler's signs have tended to develop a "cookie cutter" look, the sign pope says — although that is do at least in part to a past municipal hall practice of requiring all signs in one building to be of the same style. Bishop opens a booklet defining commercial sign guidelines for the Mont Tremblant resort in Quebec. This is the future, Bishop says, pointing to photographic examples of retail signs that use imaginative iron wrought brackets and, best of all, three-dimensional signs. A grocery store's sign is a large and colourful wheelbarrow of garden vegetables and fruit. A flower shop's sign is a 3-D bouquet. Other stores have signs in a variety of shapes that aren't rectangles or roundels. Imagine, for an instant, if a Whistler snowboard shop featured a honking great snow board blasting out of its sign; or a photo shop displaying a monster camera; or a full-on teddy bear hanging outside a gift emporium. "A lot of our brackets are really boring," Bishop says as an example. "I'm not saying copy Tremblant, but we can use them as a source for ideas." But there's always going to be a limit. "There are so many retailers who select a location and try to add more and more signage to attract people to their store, we have to draw the line," Bishop says.