Department of Buildings announces reforms to sign-permitting process

Benz Jewelers owner Freddie Benz paid a $6,000 fine in 2018 and purchased a new sign after an anonymous caller reported his business — and dozens of others in the area — to the city for having placards without a permit.
Photo by Steve Solomonson

Roughly two years after a bevy of Brooklyn businesses were hit with steep fines for boasting non-compliant signs above their storefronts, the Department of Buildings has released a slew of recommended reforms to the permitting process that will reduce headaches for small shops struggling amid the pandemic-related recession. 

“We are always looking for opportunities to better serve our fellow New Yorkers,” said Buildings Commissioner Melanie E. La Rocca. “Cutting red tape and streamlining enforcement will help support small businesses across the city.”

Authorities slapped dozens of businesses across the city with thousands of dollars in fines in 2018 after anonymous tipsters called in complaints to 311 about their storefront signage — with the vast majority logged in Brooklyn, at 1,046 of a total 1,890. Fines for sign violations start at $6,000 and can go up to $15,000.

The violations stemmed from a little-known 1968 law requiring businesses to apply for permits to install signs larger than six square feet, which was designed to prevent signs from falling and injuring pedestrians. 

The crackdown led to widespread outrage from the business community, which saw the regulations as an unnecessary and arbitrary overreach to burden already heavily-regulated entrepreneurs.

In an effort to relax and reexamine the situation, the DOB announced that they would institute a moratorium on sign enforcement until Feb. 9, 2021 — giving them time to study and implement better rules governing the storefront placards. 

In its report, which was released on Dec. 16, the DOB’s assembled task force recommended a number of strategies to prevent future onerous tickets — including changes to the permit process, addressing 311 abuse, and grants to help business owners with compliance.

The report recommended installation of a dedicated Department of Buildings liaison, in concert with the Department of Small Business Services, to work with business owners as they navigate the sign application process.

The Department should also, the report argues, keep the current moratorium in place until the task force’s other recommendations are fully implemented — giving businesses time to adjust, and to make use of the newly provided resources.  

Most notably for businesses with unknowingly non-compliant signage, the report demands that the Department implement a warning system, where business owners will receive a six-month period to fix the signs before any fines are levied, rather than be punished immediately. 

La Rocca, who took the reins atop the Buildings Department in May of 2019, “fully endorsed” the task force’s recommendations, and promised expediency on giving small businesses clarity to avoid monetary fines amid the coronavirus-related recession.  

“We fully endorse the recommendations made in this report and will work diligently to put them in place,” she said.