Lewis Griswold

Griswold: Sign controversy rattles Visalia downtown

Downtown property owner William Martin of Visalia put a photo on his Facebook page of a Pita Kabob restaurant sign and said the city wouldn't allow it.

He said he wanted "to start a conversation" about the city's sign ordinance.

Martin owns a commercial building at Court Street and Oak Avenue in which Pita Kabob Mediterranean Fusion Grill opened about two weeks ago.

The sign didn't comply with the ordinance, so the city made Pita Kabob paint it over, Martin charged.

But Mayor Steve Nelsen said no one from the city told Pita Kabob to paint over the sign.

"City staff and the building department have bent over backwards to facilitate the construction, then all of a sudden this came to the forefront," he said. "They were informed they could seek a variance. Everyone does it. It's a very doable process."

The restaurant's owner "made the decision on his own volition" to paint over the sign, Nelsen said.

Pita Kabob co-owner Chafic Dada, 24, sees it differently.

"We were never offered any solution," he said. "I wish I was offered an alternative."

The sign was painted over so he could get permission to open, Dada said.

He said he opted to paint over two signs just to get the doors open so he could start bringing in revenue to cover his mounting business expenses.

Before opening, Pita Kabob had three signs: A large wooden sign above the entrance and two smaller signs painted on the outside of the building. Because the storefront is set back, the entrance sign is not easily seen from the street.

The sign ordinance, with exceptions, limits total signage to 50 square feet for downtown properties.

All business signs require a permit, but Pita Kabob did not submit an application for the painted signs, City Manager Mike Olmos said.

Dada said he viewed the painted signs as art, not signs.

"We didn't think you needed a permit for a painting," he said.

Martin said the city building department told his contractor to make a lot line adjustment, move a gate and comply with the sign ordinance.

He said the sign saga exposes the need for an updated ordinance.

"There needs to be common sense," he said. "It's not necessary to be that restrictive."

The city is in the process of updating its sign ordinance, Olmos said. An advisory committee -- Martin is a member -- will review a consultant's proposed ordinance in August.

HABITAT: Betsy Murphy is retiring as executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Tulare County, a job she held for 15 years.

Her last day is Monday.

Under her watch, the organization built 44 new homes, renovated 28 foreclosed homes and repaired 200 others.

"As I look back on 15 years, I have been surrounded by staff and volunteers who all work to make somebody else's life better," Murphy said.

Volunteers do 80% of the work so very low income families can have a home of their own.

Families buy the homes by making monthly payments on no-profit, no-interest loans and contribute 500 hours of sweat equity.

Dirk Holkeboer of Visalia has been hired as the new executive director. He is director of the new homes program at Self-Help Enterprises and is a former Habitat executive from Florida and the Midwest.

The twist to the story is that Holkeboer is Murphy's husband. The board of directors did a three-month search.

Murphy said she'll play tennis and spend time with her grandchildren.