$40,000 in fines over a sign

Hair salon owner pledges to fight zoning penalties

Over the last three years, a local hair salon at 80 Park Ave. has been battling City Hall over a cloth sign on a pole outside – and has racked up $40,000 in fines as a result.

The 13-year-old establishment offers professional hair cuts for men and women, coloring, waxes, extensions, and straightening treatments. The red 12-foot-high “feather flag” sign near the salon’s fence displays its name (Shear Madness), phone number, and says that walk-ins are welcome.

Salon owner David Adier says that on his quiet corner, the sign has helped increase business significantly.

But signs like that one, “feather flag signs,” have been illegal in town since a zoning ordinance change in 2012. Feather flag signs are defined by the Hoboken zoning code as a “temporary advertising sign, made of lightweight cloth, which are supported by a lightweight freestanding pole or frame.” The signs are currently “prohibited in all districts.”

Adier says he’s had the sign since 2011 and should be grandfathered in.

Former 1st Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano, a former member of the Zoning Board, had told Adier his sign should be grandfathered back when she was his representative.

But according to Juan Melli, spokesman for the city of Hoboken, there is a reason these signs have been outlawed.

“In Hoboken, they would typically be placed on the public right-of-way,” said Melli. “They then become an obstruction to pedestrians and an additional distraction to both pedestrians and drivers. Permitting feather flags would require a change in city code.”

Adier believes that his sign is not in anyone’s way as it is flush against a fence outside of his salon.

The same ordinance states, “Signs lawfully in existence or approved by an action of the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, or zoning officer at the effective date of the section which shall be made nonconforming at the passage of this section shall be allowed to continue as of right.”

It is because of this above statement that Adier believes his sign should be grandfathered in.

The city believes that he does not have the right to be grandfathered in because he did not have a permit for the sign at the time it was first displayed.

“Only a permanently installed sign that is approved by permit would be eligible to be grandfathered,” said Melli. “He would have needed approval for this sign or flag through the Buildings Department and obtained a permit for the sign. Furthermore, he has been notified that he can apply to the Zoning Board to present the position that he should be considered grandfathered, or to request a variance, but has failed to do so.”

Adier doesn’t have a regular sign on his building because the condo board does not allow them.

Every other avenue

Adier said that he has tried every avenue in trying to get the issue of his sign resolved apart from approaching the zoning board of appeals.

Adier believes the board is biased and will simply back Ann Holtzman, the city’s zoning officer. He said that a private attorney told him the same thing.

Appearances before the zoning board can also take much time and money, particularly if one hires a lawyer.

In the last few years, various business owners have complained about the labyrinthine process of getting zoning approval in town, including having to spend thousands of dollars over many months to add an extension. (See stories at Hudsonreporter.com including “Caught in a (zoning) crossfire,” June 5, 2016, and “Zoned out” on Aug 30. 2015.)

Starting in 2013

Adier has received two notices and two summonses in his name beginning in March of 2013. His employee Oscar Landicho was originally summonsed.

Adier has gone to municipal court several times over the summonses, but so far, the issue has not been resolved. At his most recent appearance, Adier says, he was told he could pay “$1,000 to remove the sign and plead guilty or $40,000 should I be found guilty at trial,” he said.

Adier said in a previous appearance, he was told that he could pay $80,000 if found guilty, or plead guilty and only pay $2,000.

But he turned down both of the pleas, because he would still have to remove the sign.

If he challenges the matter in court, he could lose and have to pay the full amount.

Adier said he has felt an “$80,000 dagger hanging over [his] head for months.”

Another possibility

He has met with Mayor Dawn Zimmer and had several conversations with 1st Ward Councilman Michael DeFusco about the matter. He also sent a followup letter to the mayor’s chief of staff. He said the mayor’s office wrote back saying he should have had a permit for the original sign.

Melli explained last week, “Mayor Zimmer met with Mr. Adier during her office hours, where they discussed his situation, and the mayor agreed to look into the issue. Corporation counsel [the city attorney] determined that the city code prohibits feather flags as signage. We understand his plight, and he’s been directed to go to the Zoning Board. He was provided with the application form and information on how to submit it.”

Adier said, “I am not looking for a variance. I am looking for enforcement of the law as it is written. I should be grandfathered.”

The Zoning Board of Adjustment is an independent body of seven commissioners appointed by the City Council for four-year terms. According to the city website, the board is “empowered to grant relief from the strict application of Zoning Regulations (variances), approve certain uses of land (special exceptions), and hear appeals of actions taken by the city.”

Councilman Michael DeFusco, who is also a former commissioner of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, believes that there should be another avenue for local business owners to receive relief from the Zoning Office.

“At an upcoming council meeting, I’ll be introducing an ordinance that creates a signage hardship clause, giving the governing body (City Council) the authority to provide relief, if deemed necessary,” said DeFusco. “This pending ordinance proposes a case-by-case relief structure in situations where there is no other alternative and requires no financial commitment to a land use board.  Should those in elected office not chose to support a local business whose landlord creates a burden, that’s their vote, their agenda, their record.”

According to DeFusco, the pending ordinance is currently undergoing review by corporation counsel to ensure that there are no legal holdups before he presents it to the council.

The former councilwoman for the war, Theresa Castellano, said last week, “The original flag was there before the ordinance was rewritten. I was on the zoning board and the council for many years and it has always been that if a law was changed, anything that preceded the law would be considered grandfathered.”

In April, 2012, the City Council passed an ordinance that deleted some of the municipal zoning code at the time and replaced it with a new chapter entitled “Signs & Signage.”

The ordinance in use during the time of Adier’s purchase of the feather flag sign in 2011 stated that “A permit shall be secured from the building inspector for the erection, alteration or reconstruction of any signs other than nameplates, identifications, sales, or rental signs.” It also stated that temporary signs, other than election signs, should not remain in place more than four weeks.”

The original ordinance never defined or mentioned a feather flag sign.

Adier says that his sign is not temporary, but also not permanent because it is only displayed during operating hours.

Needs to attract attention

Adier is two blocks from the city’s main drag, Washington Street. He says that as soon as he started using the feather flag sign in 2011 he saw a 10 percent increase in clients.

Adier believes that his business will not be able to survive if he is forced to remove his sign. Recently he did a “test drive” by removing his sign for the day to see if it would affect his business.

“We took the sign in for the day,” said Adier. “I had a client that I was waiting for and about half an hour passed, so I called him on the phone and he goes ‘I drove by and didn’t see the sign out front so I thought you were closed. I just figured if you were there the sign would be out.’ A longtime client, who should’ve known better, and still, saw the sign wasn’t out and didn’t come in. I lost business that day.”

He said, “2011 we had easily 10 percent bump because people didn’t know we were there. There is a building across the street with hundreds of units in it and we found people who had lived across the street for years and thought we were a new business although we had always been there. They said, ‘Oh I’m so glad they opened a hair salon here’ and I had been here for almost 10 years.”

Adier also noted that the condo association’s guidelines are restrictive. “My salon is on a one-way street, away from the corner, with a recessed entrance, and little foot traffic,” he said. “After a long fight with the building they said you could have a stainless steal plaque next to my door, which would be wonderful if I was an architect or a dentist but isn’t very helpful for a hair salon. It won’t draw attention to the business, especially in the location I am in.”

Adier has tried other methods of signage in the past but they have not be helpful.

“In 2003 we had an A frame sign, but it sat behind parked cars so people didn’t even know there was a hair salon there,” said Adier.

He said that, considering the size of the fine, “I don’t know how much Holtzman thinks the salon makes, but that would put me out of business.”

A jury of his peers

Three weeks ago Adier took his circumstance to the public arena by emailing an online petition that asks for signatures to “Ask Mayor Zimmer, Zoning Officer Ann

Holtzman, and the Hoboken City Council, to end this harassment of small business and focus on the issues that matter to the Citizenry of Hoboken.”

The petition had amassed 182 signatures and several comments as of Aug 23.

One commenter wrote, “Enough of harassing a small business owner. Outrageous! Two decades of political corruption is not made back [sic] by harassment, parking tickets, and bicycle lanes.”

Another wrote “As a former resident of Hoboken, part of the reason I left was the intractable bureaucracy in HBK city hall. They make it nigh impossible to run a business. Meanwhile, the town’s infrastructure is a mess (Washington anybody?)”

That person added that he believes the city is enforcing “arbitrary” laws to get money from citizens and businesses.

Melli said, “While we recognize and understand the situation he is in, the city has received complaints about the sign and is enforcing the law.”

When asked for documentation of the complaints, Melli said that most complaints investigated by the zoning office are made anonymously and complainers are not required to submit a complaint in writing.

He said, “The Zoning Office received at least three separate calls from residents and a couple more from other businesses who had complied with our request to remove their flags, wanting to know why Shear Madness’s flag was still up.”

He added “over the past few years, we have had about two dozen businesses that have been notified to take down feather flags and they have all complied except for one.”

DeFusco says he has never been contacted with complaints about Adier’s sign, which is in his district downtown. But he said he has heard support from Adier’s customers.

“Not one resident has reached out to me against the flag,” said DeFusco. “On the flip side, I’ve had a number of folks, all of whom get their hair cut at the salon, call me, aggravated with the city’s enforcement.”

While DeFusco has been allied with the mayor, he has also showed independence on certain issues.

DeFusco believes that “A petition shows my council colleagues that there is substantial community support behind the cause. I am one of nine, and though I trust my colleagues will support my forthcoming ordinance. Community feedback always helps inform them.”

The petition can be found online at change.org and searching “End Zoning Office Harassment of Small Business in Hoboken.”

Marilyn Baer can be reached at marilynb@hudsonreporter.com

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