Two local businesses accuse Blythewood Town Hall of harassment, bullying

BLYTHEWOOD – The owners of two downtown Blythewood businesses told council members at a special called meeting last week that they felt they were being targeted, harassed and even bullied by the town government because their storefronts feature LED lighting.

George Shuller

Both store owners – John and Teresa Edwards, owners of Blythewood Cigar and Wine and George Shuller, co-owner of the Smoke Shop – say they should be free to display the lights on their storefronts since there is no ordinance (law) against non-flashing LED lights on commercial businesses in the town.

“He (Kirk Wilson, building and zoning analyst for the Town) said he was told by his higher ups to keep coming back every day until we turn off the LED lights,” Schuller told council.

The Smoke Shop sells CDB and associated items and is located in the IGA shopping strip. Blythewood Cigar and Wine is a cigar and wine shop and bar located behind Kelly Ballentine Allstate Insurance on Langford Road.

On the agenda at last week’s meeting were two amendments to the town’s sign ordinance. The first amendment would, if passed, simply provide a definition of window signs, which the zoning ordinance did not define previously.

The second text amendment referenced LED lighting and would prohibit the use of LED lighting on commercial buildings except when used as an informational sign (like “Open”) or between Thanksgiving Day and New Years Day when businesses may decorate their facades for the holidays.

The two amendments had been unanimously recommended by the planning commission on Dec. 6.

On Dec. 15, the amendments came before town council for first reading.

A timeline of the Town’s complaints against Shuller’s LED lights began on Sept. 29. Schuller told council that the lights were turned on as flashers on Sept. 28. 

“I had them flashing and they came the next morning and told us to turn them off,” Shuller said. He said he complied but left them on as non-flashing lights which is not prohibited by the window sign ordinance.

“After that it was like harassment and bullying. Someone [from town hall] would come and wouldn’t say anything, just be outside taking pictures of the windows and wouldn’t say anything,” Shuller said.

Another employee of the shop told The Voice that she took a photo of Wilson and another man outside holding their coats up over the lights in the window. She said they were trying to determine how bright the lights were.

“There is no ordinance so why are we getting this type of threat that you keep coming every day till we turn the lights off,” Shuller asked council. “This is not fair.”

Shuller told council he spent about $3,000 to have the lights installed.

“Now because a few people don’t like it they can just use whatever authority, whatever power, whatever influence they have to get this pushed across because they don’t like it. That’s unfair.”

Shuller said that after he was told by Wilson that he would continue to come every day until Shuller turned the lights off, that he (Shuller) finally turned them off on Nov. 2.

“I didn’t have the energy,” Shuller said of the ongoing issue.

The Voice left a phone message with questions for Wilson about the lighting issue on Friday, Dec. 17 and for Town Administrator Carroll Williamson on Monday, Dec. 20, but neither have responded at press time.

Teresa and John Edwards | Photos: Barbara Ball

Teresa Edwards told council that she was first made aware of the LED lighting issue when she attended a downtown merchants meeting sponsored by the chamber on Oct. 21. While her shop does not have LED lights in the windows, several strands of LED lights are strung across the building above the windows.

“It came up in a conversation from Mike Ross. He gave us his opinion of what he thought of the lights,” Edwards said.

John Edwards also addressed council, saying the lighting on his building was for safety in the dark area where his store is located. He also addressed Councilman Rich McKenrick.

“So, we start to feel targeted, Mr. Councilman,” he said to McKenrick. “You came in to our place tonight for the first time. You came in with an agenda, about our lights.”

“As you know,” Williamson told council at the beginning of the meeting, addressing the two proposed ordinances, “the town has architectural standards for commercial buildings that also pertain to their signage, and on that section of the ordinance, it says there shall be compatibility between signage and site architectural building material, colors, graphics and other architectural features,” Williamson said. “The Town over the years has worked very hard to keep a traditional look to its commercial area and it’s become the Town’s brand as properties get developed.”

Williamson went on to say that it is from that overarching guidance that the two proposed text amendments are recommended. He said not only staff recommended the ordinances, but the board of architectural review (BAR), the planning commission and the Blythewood Chamber of Commerce recommended them as well.

When asked by Councilman Brock why the business owner decided to turn his store’s LED lights off, Williamson said he “expressed to them that this is not reflective of the architectural standards of the Town and they recognized that and said they would take [the lights] down.”.

“So they agreed with your position?” Brock asked.

“Right,” Williamson answered.

“Which business was this? Brock asked.

“It was in the IGA shopping center. I’m not sure of the exact business,” Williamson answered.

“The new tobacco shop?” Sloan Jarvis asked.

“Yes, the new tobacco shop,” Williamson said.

Council voted 4 – 1 in favor of the first ordinance that would define window signs, with Eddie Baughman voting against. Council voted 5 – 0 against passing the second ordinance that would prohibit LED lights on downtown businesses.

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