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Board Says This Sign in Bellevue Has to Be Removed

A decision at the City of Bellevue's board of adjustments could lead to a parade of signs coming before its members after zoning administrator Scott Enns rattled off a list of Fairfield Avenue businesses that currently boast images on their buildings that do not conform to city guidelines.

The catalyst for the hearing: the new logo for In Vue, the reimagined branding associated with what was previously known as Bellevue Renaissance - the central business district's chief cheerleading organization. The 5/3 Bank branch at 240 Fairfield Ave. has the image emblazoned on its north-facing wall, welcoming visitors to town. The brand was unveiled in July of last year and was created by Covington-based creative firm BLDG. The painted image of the logo was placed on the 5/3 branch in October.

That's when someone told board of adjustments member Jeff Sharp to take a look at the In Vue painting, with the question of whether it fits the city's zoning code. Sharp raised the issue at a board of adjustments or planning & zoning commission meeting last fall, and Bellevue zoning administrator Scott Enns determined that the painting was in violation.

"We're not interested in content," Enns said at Thursday night's board of adjustments meeting at the Callahan Center. "What we're interested in is the rule for off-premises advertising." 

So, if the violations associated with the image were spotted in October, why did it take nearly eight months for a formal hearing to take place? 

That piece of the story is murky - and caused tension at the hearing between Enns and Assistant City Administrator Jody Robinson who is also the In Vue manager. 

The sign is owned by In Vue and is on a building owned by 5/3 Bank. Enns emphasized that the image could not and should be considered as a "mural" because that word does not appear in the city's zoning code, though it is part of its preservation guidelines. The image must be considered a sign, he a said. So, what kind of sign is it? If it were simply artistic in nature, it would not face the same number of violations, but the sign advertises In Vue - and because there is no reference to 5/3 Bank on the sign, it is considered an "off-premises" advertisement. That means the In Vue sign has three violations: it did not submit a sign application, it did not signify that 5/3 officially signed off on the project, and it is too large and requires a variance (the largest sign permitted is 20 sq. ft. and the In Vue sign is more than 50 sq. ft.).

"The image and the words constitute a logo with commercial speech intent," Enns said. The zoning administrator offered the board of adjustments - Made up of Sharp, Ralph Meyer, and Sean Fisher - its three possible considerations:allow there to be one additional sign on the 5/3 Bank building and require the bank to add its logo to the image, which would remove it from being an off-premises sign; Permit the additional sign on the building with proof of permission from 5/3; or deny the application and ask In Vue to remove the sign.

The board chose unanimously to deny. Robinson said after the meeting that the organization would comply and not appeal to Campbell County Circuit Court, which would have been the next step.

"It's unfortunate," Robinson said of the issue, which she blamed on miscommunication at the city. "This has never, until there was a response, been thought of as a sign. It was thought of as a mural." Robinson said the concept was presented publicly in late 2014 though a location had not been identified. She said it was discussed at public meetings and referenced in staff reports to city council. 

Three new murals have entered the Renaissance district along Fairfield Avenue since the In Vue concept was brought up, she said.

The logo, Robinson said, and the new identity for Bellevue Renaissance were important messaging components for a successful main street program that in recent years has seen a spate of new competition as other nearby urban districts gather strength and appeal. 

"Main Street districts and their vitality are very fragile things and change all the time," Robinson told the board of adjustments. "We used to be the sweetheart of not just Northern Kentucky but the entire region. But things have changed. Look at all these communities popping up and being strong and vibrant."

Bellevue had had its renaissance, the In Vue board decided, embarking on a new brand campaign.

For its board members and some surrounding business owners, the campaign is a positive addition to Bellevue. "The most important question we have to ask is not what the sign says, but what it represents," said Tim Wilhelm, a ten-year resident of Bellevue who serves on the In Vue board. "It represents a group of people, businesses, and the city itself to build a better community and advance the betterment of everyone involved. I think you see a large draw to this city because of this."

Elizabeth Hogan has lived in Bellevue for just under a year and joined the In Vue board because she said she found a natural enthusiasm with the organization's goals. "I think that says a lot about someone who's only lived here eleven months that wanted to join an organization and give back and do something," she said. "The logo brings together and builds a sense of community. That logo says I'm part of Bellevue no matter how long I've lived here."

What the logo says, varies from person to person, Robinson conceded. Some see a quilt, some a mosaic, and others see pixels. Though the branding has been placed all over the central business district with banners and signs in the public right of way, this particular sign on the 5/3 Bank building has drawn particular enthusiasm in some circles, with people stopping to take photographs with it.

The image is also popular with some business owners. "People really do like the logo. We have stacks of stickers in the store and people take them and some have offered to buy them," said Crystal Thompson, owner of Splendid Things. The store also sells T-shirts with the logo.

But the branding was not on trial Thursday night - the placement, size, and scope of the In Vue sign itself was. "Historic preservation guidelines, this doesn't meet any of them," Sharp said from dais. "There is no mural in our zoning code. The color, the background, it doesn't even match the colors on Fairfield Avenue."

"If I go back and look at it as a sign - a sign, I can staff-approve," Robinson responded. "This one I wouldn't. I would take it to historic preservation for their review."

"You are right down the hall from Scott (Enns)," Sharp said. "Why not ask him about it?"

"We did have that conversation and we have different memories about it," Robinson said. 

Enns took exception to Robinson's characterization that the issue was not brought before the board of adjustments for eight months because he was busy. "I am not so swamped that I can't take an application," Enns said. "The administration was notified. I have not sat on this and I have not been too busy to address it. That is an incorrect assessment of this situation."

Board of adjustments member Sean Fisher questioned whether the sign would have been acceptable if it simply advertised the City of Bellevue, rather than a specialized sub-section. Enns said that the sign would still have to come for review and that there are other signs on the Avenue that are also currently in violation and he rattled off a list: Petri's Flowers would require a variance for the sign and the expressed written consent of the property owner; Schneider's Sweet Shop would require a sign application and a variance for its size; Mama C's would need a sign application and a property owner permission note. 

"It seems to be an endemic issue," said Fisher. "There is an awful lot of noncompliance. We might as well get a big bucket of white paint and go up and down the Avenue."

But those signs would only be forced to answer to the board of adjustments if they receive complaints like the In Vue sign did, Enns said. They had not come before Enns since he assumed his role as zoning administrator in 2015. The complaints registered over the In Vue sign left some in the audience wondering if the motives were more targeted towards the organization.

Wilhelm asked the board to identify who complained, and Enns said that it is not something he does, the revealing of those who take note of violations. At Thursday's meeting no one from the public spoke against the mural. 

When presented with their three options for the In Vue sign, the board of adjustments ultimately voted unanimously to deny the sign, forcing its removal soon. 

"I feel immense pride when I see that sign," said Fisher, expressing sympathy from the dais, "and I feel emotionally attached to it. The process just isn't there right now for us to have the framework to approve this."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher