County bans costumed characters, calling them signs with moving parts

January 15, 2010 

Liberty Tax Service employees, from left, Randy Clegg, Deidra Coaxum and Kristina Dugan wave Friday as cars travel along Sea Island Parkway on Lady’s Island. A codes enforcer deemed the human advertisement a “sign with moving parts,” which is prohibited in unincorporated Beaufort County.

JONATHAN DYER | THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

Tax season is here, and for Liberty Tax Service stores across the nation, that means dressing employees in patriotic costumes, putting them on the sidewalk and hoping their big smile and friendly wave will pull in potential customers.

Except in Beaufort County.

Troy Davenport, owner of the Lady's Island Liberty Tax Service at 10 Sams Point Way, said a county codes enforcement officer has visited his business three times in the last three days and threatened to fine the store a $1,200 a day if it puts an employee dressed as the Statue of Liberty back on the sidewalk again.

The officer deemed the employee a "sign with moving parts," which the county prohibits in its code of ordinance.

According to the county code, a sign is "any object, device or structure ... used to identify, advertise, display, direct or attract to" an object, person, institution or organization through its letters, figures, designs, symbols, fixtures, logos or color, among other attributes.

It's frustrating, Davenport said, because just blocks away, in the city of Beaufort, businesses are free to send their costumed employees out to advertise.

That includes the Liberty Tax Service on Robert Smalls Parkway, which started sending its Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam to advertise on the curb -- for about the eighth consecutive year -- on Thursday, said general manager Tom Dardaris.

"If you were to sit here and ask the new people who come in the door, how did you happen to chose us, the majority would say they saw our wavers and decided to stop in," Dardaris said.

Libby Anderson, planning director for the city of Beaufort, said the city has never formally considered the subject.

"If we were asked to make a decision, I don't know where we would come down on that," she said.

Davenport's store opened Jan. 9, and he hired five people to be "wavers," earning $8 to $10 per hour.

The county issued Davenport at least two cease-and-desist tickets this week. If he continues to violate the code, officials could charge him with a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine determined by a magistrate court judge, said zoning administrator Hillary Austin.

County officials said a person smiling and signaling at passing cars could distract drivers and leave the county liable.

"The opportunity to distract a driver, however remote the possibilitymay in fact might be, is there," said county Planning Director Tony Criscitiello. "The liability that might flow to the county is one that we are not able to ignore."

Davenport has asked the county for a formal interpretation of its ordinance. Officials have 30 days to respond. If Davenport disagrees, he can appeal the decision to the county Zoning Board of Appeals.

"We're brand new, and we need people to know we're back here," Davenport said. "We don't have 30 days or more to wait for this process. The tax season is so short, and it's already started."

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