West New York business owners, undoubtedly the body that will be most affected by a controversial sign ordinance passed by Mayor Felix Roque and the town’s Board of Commissioners in late February, are divided on whether they support the measure. The measure would ban certain types of signs and require permits to display others.
While some business owners expressed anger over the possibility of having to pay for something that has, until now, been free, others agreed with Roque, who has stated that the law is designed to improve the aesthetics of the town’s main business district along Bergenline Avenue.
“Look up and down Bergenline; how many stores are already closed or closing?” said Radi Mohammed, who owns La Fiesta Buffet on the corner of 61st street and Bergenline, only two blocks from Town Hall. “Tell me, what town in what country has a law like this? The only affordable way to advertise is to put signs in your window.”
Mohammed said he had no doubt that if he was forced to take his signs down, he would lose business.
“I’d lose at least 10 percent of my profits,” he said.
Tony Santos, who manages Mobile World, a cell phone store and service provider, said he disagreed with the cost of the permits, which according to the ordinance is $150 plus a detailed plan for each sign.
“I don’t agree that we’d have to pay for something that’s always been free,” he said.
A spokesman for the mayor, Pablo Fonseca, originally had said that a grandfather clause ushering in pre-existing signs free of charge would be included in the ordinance, but no such clause exists.
Still, Santos admitted he saw some wisdom in the law.
“Tell me, what town in what country has a law like this? The only affordable way to advertise is to put signs in your window.” - Radi Mohammed
Santos said that he thought the flags and bright, outdoor signs could potentially distract drivers along Bergenline, and thus pose potential dangers to pedestrians and drivers alike.
“If it’s a safety issue, I can relate to that, but that doesn’t seem to be the issue,” he said.
Roque, for his part, has not made safety an issue of the debate, but has said he thought the business flags and neon signs commonly displayed throughout town detract from quality of life. However, the ban does include “signs that are displayed in such a manner as to be hazardous to traffic or disturb occupants of any other building.”
Political opponents of Roque have said the ban was designed to target opponents who drove two trucks through town with anti-Roque videos displayed. Roque has maintained that the ordinance is unrelated to the trucks, which are owned by a member of the anti-Roque group Residents for a Better West New York.
Waffa Souda, who owns the La Moda Fina, Inc. women’s boutique on Bergenline, said she agreed with parts of the ordinance, but disagreed with others.
“I don’t like the signs that stand on the sidewalk,” she said. “I think they’re ugly, so getting rid of those would be fine, but we have to be able to put signs in the windows, or else how would people know what’s inside?”
She said that the flags and stand-up signs displayed along Bergenline made the neighborhood look “ugly and cheap,” and that banning them might actually attract more shoppers.
“Customers already have complaints about Bergenline,” she said. “There’s no free parking and there’s garbage everywhere, why give them something else to complain about?”
Politicians at war
While Roque has remained relatively silent on the ordinance since its passing, his opponents have been consistently up in arms, though not necessary in conjunction with one another.
Commissioner Count Wiley, who is attempting to organize a recall election against Roque, formed a new group, the West New York Business Association, in the wake of the ordinance’s passing, and hosted a breakfast for business owners last month.
“You have to have take an interest in politics if you want your business to succeed,” he told the breakfast’s attendees.
Wiley said that he was planning to file an injunction against the ordinance’s implementation, but he never got the chance because Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez, who represents West New York in Trenton, filed a petition in early March to have the ordinance placed on the ballot in the upcoming November elections.
Jimenez said that she had planned to question the ordinance publicly at a Board of Commissioners meeting in February, but was kept out when Town Hall’s municipal chambers were filled to capacity. Jimenez suggested that Roque had deliberately filled the chambers, but the mayor denied the accusation. When her attempt to lobby Roque publicly failed, she began gathering signatures for the petition.
“We want this to be on the ballot so that there is a fair playing field,” she said in an interview this week. “This is a game that [Roque] is playing and its being played at West New York’s expense.”
Ironically, the town’s attorney, Gil Garcia, said in a phone interview this week that he had planned to remove the $150 permit fee from the ordinance, but refrained following the filing of Jimenez’s petition.
“I think it would be best not to amend the ordinance again until everything with the petition is sorted out,” he said.
Despite having gathered the required number of signatures for the measure to be placed on the ballot, Jimenez’s petition was initially rejected by Town Clerk Carmela Riccie at Garcia’s behest due to several clerical errors.
According to Riccie, Jimenez has until Sunday to refile a corrected version of the petition.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org