Edmonds sign ordinance bad for business | Guest View

By James Spangler | Oct 16, 2016

Here is your Latin lesson for the day: “primum non nocere” or “primum nil nocere,” which both mean “first do no harm.”

It's a phrase drilled into the heads of medical students everywhere. It acknowledges the fact that it is sometimes better to do nothing at all, or to do very little, than to make a big mess of things by acting on the erroneous thought that something should be done.

When the big economic downturn happened, businesses throughout the downtown Edmonds core began to fail. It got to the point where I thought someone should put up a sign: “Will the last merchant leaving Edmonds please turn out the lights.”

Thankfully, things have changed, and now the place is hopping. There's talk of angled parking to increase the number of parking spaces. This is a pretty good problem to have.

But here's the thing – small businesses off the main drags in Edmonds have only survived by placing directional signage at the corners. I know this because my little bookstore is one of those businesses. How many times have I heard someone say, "Thank God you put a sign out – I would never have found you without it.”

Well, Edmonds’ new sign ordinance now makes that impossible. Ironically, those businesses that need directional signage the least, still qualify – although they'll pay handsomely for the honor.

A handful of extraordinarily vocal Edmonds residents have done some serious damage. Now buoyed with their recent success, they’ll be going after the tables outside several restaurants next.

Unfortunately, this is the classic example of a city council fixing something that wasn't broken, and doing great harm in the process.

One of my favorite law professors told this story when describing the pitfalls of good Samaritan laws: A guy buys a new jacket for riding his motorcycle. He gets on his bike and all is going well until he hits 45 mph. At this point, the zipper cover of his new jacket starts flapping. He pulls over, puts the jacket on backwards, and boom, it works great, he’s zooming along, happy as a clam, until he encounters some gravel on a turn.

He is then laying in a ditch unconscious with his helmet and mirrored visor facing one direction and his jacket the other.

Enter the good Samaritan. After calling 911, he straightens the cyclist’s head out – thereby killing him. Liability? He didn't mean to hurt the guy; his intentions were good. He just felt like he needed to do something.

Notice an analogy here?

Although downtown merchants and concerned citizens are beginning to organize, I doubt this ordinance will be rescinded. Lawmakers are not famous for admitting and correcting errors.

But at the very least, I think from here on out, our council should be prohibited from giving lip service to how much they support small businesses in downtown Edmonds.

I do recognize that public service is difficult and often thankless. I'm grateful to those who step up. They are human, however, and they do make mistakes. This is one of those times.

If a tavern has to lay off employees, if a hardware store leaves town, if your favorite frame shop, hair salon or gallery gives up in frustration and closes the door – don't forget to thank the good Samaritan.

James Spangler is the owner of a bookstore in Edmonds.


Comments (1)
Posted by: Michael Plunkett | Oct 19, 2016 17:09

About 15 years ago, when on Edmonds City Council, I had the Downtown Parking Committee request to public works that the 15 minute loading zone in front of the Edmonds Bookstore be painted at the request of the small businesses of downtown. I did so because I trusted those merchants know what is best for small businesses downtown. That's why I think Mr. Spangler is right when he encourages council to listen and support the great businessman in Edmonds.

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