After virtually ignoring them for the past three years, the town of Bluffton has begun enforcing its sign rules, upsetting business owners who relied on the free advertising to attract customers.
"I will lose at least $200 a day without the signs there showing people I'm in here," said Connie Rockhill, owner of the Village Pasta Shoppe in Bluffton Village, whose temporary signs were removed last week. Since then, she's put the signs in her car windows and parked near the store on S.C. 46.
"I can show you my books. Monday was my slowest day in a year," she said.
Tom Lewis, who spent about $600,000 opening Old Town Vintage Posters with his wife in 2005, says his signs were removed last Thursday. Since then, he said, his walk-in traffic has plummeted, and business is down more than half for the month.
"My signs have been picked up in the past, years ago, and when I called (the town) they were returned," he said. "This time, when I called, they wanted $50 to return them. I don't know if I am going to pay to get them back."
Lewis said he puts his signs out each morning and picks them up each night. He says the Bluffton Farmers Market has been allowed to keep its signs out permanently.
"You can't let people build up their business for years and years under a certain set of conditions then arbitrarily decide one day to pull those conditions out from underneath them and have them see their work go up in smoke," he said.
Town officials point out that temporary signs, such as corrugated plastic or "real-estate style" signs favored by many local businesses, have long been prohibited without a permit. The town chose not to strictly enforce the rule over the past few years "due to a truly bad economy," said town manager Anthony Barrett.
The town sent businesses a letter in July indicating that the sign ordinances would be enforced. After a grace period, Barrett said, the town has started removing unpermitted signs but hasn't issued any fines -- which can reach $500 a day.
"We are still in the education mode," he said in an emailed statement.
Doug Ellison, owner of Parrot Cove Ice Cream Cafe in the Calhoun Street Promenade, said temporary signs were his best form of advertising.
"Even having a storefront doesn't do any good if people don't know where to look for it," he said.
The sign issue came before Town Council on Tuesday when Lewis and Ellison separately asked council to consider a compromise. Lewis, for instance, offered to pay a local artist to build him a permanent sign.
Mayor Lisa Sulka, noting that the rules hadn't been enforced for years, suggested criticism of recent enforcement was unfair. "It's almost like, no good deed goes unpunished," she said.
Some on council appear open to compromise.
Councilwoman Karen Lavery said Wednesday she's willing to have a "more in-depth conversation" on sign enforcement.
"I think for downtown we could be a little more lax than what we are," she said, "but that's a whole new discussion."