I was seen (hopefully not by many people) saying that Southport merchants have to decide for themselves if they want our city to look like a flea market. It was in response to questions from a television reporter about sign regulations in Southport. I went on to say (to the reporter, but it was not part of the final piece) that unregulated signs can create a kind of sign pollution demonstrated by areas like Myrtle Beach (our default cautionary tale of tourism gone haywire). My point was that a fair and well-enforced set of sign regulations makes the area more appealing to visitors and residents alike and, therefore, helps all merchants display their businesses in the best possible light.
I also answered some questions about benches on city sidewalks, which are allowed in Southport as long as they are up against the building for safety and handicapped access purposes. I knew the reporter was there to cover Mr. Long and his citation for refusing to comply with city ordinances regarding the benches in front of his business, Bullfrog Corner. However, none of those comments I made about the benches were used in the story that was broadcast on the evening news and online.
I don't believe that it was done maliciously by either the reporter or the television news station. The story was the civic-minded business owner versus the big, bad city government that cannot possibly act in a personal or caring manner. I'm sure my use of the words "flea market" struck exactly the right tone for the piece, so the context was irrelevant. It made for a nice, quick report about the little guy facing an uphill battle against the massive might of municipal government. But it did make me look like the butter had slipped of my biscuit. It's all about context.
The facts are these: the sidewalks in almost all areas of the city are the property of the State of North Carolina or the City of Southport. These governmental entities are liable for anything on their property that might result in injury to person or damage to personal property. This concern is take lightly by most citizens (government activity is always dictated by their attorneys and concerns about being sued), but it is the responsibility of government to ensure that public spaces are safe and accessible for all people.
Both the state and the city have established laws for use of their public rights-of-way. Unfortunately, many people assume because it's owned by the public, the public can do whatever it wants in those areas.
Mr. Long's point is that the benches in front of his store should be allowed under the city-planted trees so pedestrians can rest in the shade. However, it has been determined and agreed (by the NCDOT, Southport Planning Board and Board of Aldermen with full public and merchant input) that benches on the sidewalk are only safe if they are up against the building and not floating freely anyplace on the sidewalk. Having the benches confined to the space against the building results in some benches being in the sun and others in the shade depending on the time of day. But with this regulation all the benches are safe and the adjacent sidewalk is open, accessible and aesthetically pleasing.
Mr. Long's problem is that the benches in the shade most of the day during the summer are not in front of his store. If he were truly civic-minded, Mr. Long would offer sweltering strollers a space on his property, which is inside his air-conditioned store. Instead he prefers to violate city ordinances that were established in an open process with full public discussion and research on how similar cities have solved the same issue. Furthermore, the city ordinances prior to allowing benches prohibited any items from being placed on the sidewalks.
And then there's that one issue that everybody seems to forget: N. Howe Street and E. Moore Street are part of state highway 211. North Carolina Statutes forbid the placement of ANYTHING within the right-of-way on state highways in specific categories, and Highway 211 is one of them. But the folks at DOT have been reasonable in allowing us to permit certain items within the state right-of-way if they are safe and ADA compliant. This is only achieved if the benches are against the buildings.
If you look around town you'll see that every other sidewalk bench in Southport is placed against the building. Some are under awnings and eaves, which place them in the shade most of the day. Others are on streets that only get direct sun for a portion of the day. Still others are in the sun most of the day. All the other shop owners seem to be getting along just fine with the sidewalk obstruction ordinance and the placement of their benches.
Mr. Long has an alternative to taking his violations public and complaining that the city is singling him out. The truth is that Mr. Long is singling himself out. He should spare himself further fines by offering a space inside his shop for overheated pedestrians rather than demanding that the city overlook his violations.