Making Sense of the County's Sign Code

We had two clients who own businesses in Kona express frustration with the sign code yesterday. One remarked, “Apparently the county doesn’t want me to be in business” after he was told he had to remove his small A-Frame sign from a place that was clearly not a safety issue. When a business owner says that we should listen, as he pays tons of taxes and runs a business that employs several people. It’s also a business that decided to rent space that has historically been vacant most of the time, so he has taken a bit of Kona blight and made it more vital.
First, a few things on which we can all agree: 1) nobody wants to see billboards on the side of highways or Las Vegas-like lighted signs, 2) nobody wants signs that have electrical or structural issues to not be properly installed and permitted, and  3) behind every sign there is a person trying to make a living.
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My problem with the County of Hawaii sign code is that it is not at all connected to the reality of what Hawaii Island is and what businesses need to do to survive. It’s also about 35 years old and doesn’t fit today’s reality.
Sure, on one hand you have a very small group of people who claim to protect the scenery of Hawaii by actively reporting sign code violations, no matter how big or small. No problem with that; we live in a democracy and they have a right to lobby, complain and have a vision of what they want Hawaii to be. They do not, however, represent all people, and they certainly do not represent the small business community, which in Kona provides way more jobs, services and economic vitality than all the big companies combined. At last count, we have over 2,000 small businesses from Hawi to South Point!
Here’s my problem with the sign code:

  1. It’s way too restrictive. Here’s one from the Prohibited Signs (Section 3-61) for any sign in Kailua Village: “Any sign for product advertising when visible to the general public. A sign containing only the name of a business is not a sign for product advertising.” So every sign you see that includes a product logo that is visible to the general public is technically in violation of the code. Also in that section of the code, temporary event signs can only be eight square feet. Anyone who has been on Alii Drive for the annual Ironman event knows that almost all the temporary signs on the buildings are nonconforming. Some of those temporary signs are 100+ sq ft! The code needs to be more flexible.
  2. It’s selectively enforced. Some districts have many nonconforming signs and some districts have less. That said, even in the areas where the sign code is enforced, almost all signs you see still do not meet code. Realtors put many Open House and other signs up that are nonconforming, but they seem to have a blanket pass from enforcement.
  3. It’s anti-business. Kailua-Kona is not a very well-planned community. Many of the buildings date back fifty years or more, and, truth be told, many are in varying states of disrepair. Retail shop space is often in hard to see locations and down dark and narrow passages between buildings or on the 2nd floor. The street front businesses have good visibility, but a lot of the affordable and open spaces are very hard to find. Signs are how these businesses direct people to their locations. One masseuse we know has a 2nd floor oceanfront location, but it is impossible to find without signs. When the county, through the property manager, made her remove her small street-level sign, her business dropped dramatically. She is now considering stopping her lease, which will not only affect her livelihood, but also add to the inventory of disused space.
  4. Signs are not what makes Hawaii Island beautiful (or not). Sure, if you hate signs and don’t care about the business and people’s lives they support, any sign is an eyesore. I find the numerous big box stores with huge buildings, lighted signs, large parking lots and Mainland goods as much more of an eyesore than the small businesses with a banner out front. The dilapidated buildings on Alii Drive are much more of an eyesore than the signs on them.The point is that the beauty of Hawaii Island is the skies, mountains and ocean. If the naysayers spent their efforts beatifying the medians of roads, the airport, our beaches and areas like the Old Airport, they would have a much bigger impact on making Hawaii a place that fits their image of what Hawaii should be
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Maybe it’s time to re-write the code in a ways that supports businesses and jobs, while at the same time protecting us from the things that can really affect our quality of life. If you own and business and are frustrated, contact your county council member and lobby for a reasonable sign code that helps instead of hinders business.

 Kona Impact  |  329-6077