In a 4-1 vote, the Royal Palm Beach Village Council denied a request May 15 by Los Agaves restaurant to allow a variance for a mural on its front windows that is opaque from the outside but allows those inside to see out.
The owner of the restaurant in the Village Royale Shopping Center had been cited for having window signage that covered more than the allowable space, but a representative contended that the mural, depicting a Hispanic village scene, was not signage.
Planning & Zoning Director Bradford O’Brien said the applicant was asking to allow 100 percent coverage of the windows, while village code prohibits window coverage over 15 percent.
“The applicant has placed a vinyl mural over the windows of his restaurant,” O’Brien said, explaining that under village code, a mural is considered a sign because it is an illustration or device that directs attention to a product, service or place of business.
O’Brien said that the applicant contends that the sign variance is justified. On the application, the restaurant gave a number of reasons, including that “other properties are allowed window signage” and that “two large columns block our location from the parking lot, and literal interpretation and enforcement of the… sign ordinance would deprive the petitioner of rights commonly enjoyed by other parcels of land in the same zoning district.”
The petitioner also contended that the circumstances do not result from the actions of the applicant, since the covering of 100 percent of the windows reflects the culture of the business and that the variance would “allow the reasonable use of the windows.”
Village staff recommended denial because the application did not meet the criteria for a variance, O’Brien said.
John Patrick Holder, representing the applicant, said other businesses in the area, including a State Farm office, have similar coverings on their windows. “We feel this denial is unjustifiable,” Holder said.
Mayor Matty Mattioli asked whether the restaurant had been cited by code enforcement, and O’Brien said it had and there was a fine running on the site.
Village Attorney Jennifer Ashton said code enforcement had issued a courtesy notice in March 2013 and that two months ago, the special magistrate had ordered the fine restarted and that the restaurant either get a sign variance or a building permit approved to stop the fine, or, if the council denied the variance, that it remove the sign to avoid further fines.
Mattioli said he had been by the restaurant several times. “You can’t see inside that building,” he said. “It’s a direct violation.”
Councilman Fred Pinto said he wanted to hear further from Holder, who explained that the person who put up the sign did not go through protocol. “That wasn’t our fault,” Holder said. “We didn’t find out about the violation… until later on.”
He added that although one cannot see inside, people inside the restaurant can see out. “It’s a safety mechanism,” Holder said. “If someone is coming to rob us, we can see from the inside.”
Vice Mayor David Swift said he thought the mural was a drastic departure from the village’s sign code. “I’ve sat here for 20 years and we’ve never done anything close to that,” Swift said. “I’d be happy for us to follow up on whatever documentation he may have, but this would be a real setback to our allowed signage.”
Councilman Richard Valuntas said that he liked the look of the frontage but was concerned about safety.
“I don’t dislike the way it looks,” Valuntas said. “I actually think it looks good, but the safety concern to me is there is a distinction between having a tinting on a window and actually having signage, and this is signage,” he said.
Valuntas said a deputy who drives by would not be able to see if there is a robbery underway. “He can’t look through this and tell,” he said.
Valuntas added that he had looked at the State Farm office but did not believe it helped the applicant’s position to point out other businesses’ possible violations.
Pinto said his understanding was the purpose of the codes was to discourage unattractive displays of advertising. “This is a violation of the code as it is written today, but, I ask myself the question, do I find this unattractive? I don’t,” he said.
Pinto suggested that they look at the code to see if it may be permissible. “Is there a way we can look at the code and maybe make some adjustments that from a code standpoint would make this permissible?” Pinto asked.
He added that he has not heard the question of safety for officers to be able to see inside.
Mattioli said he thought that if State Farm is also in violation, it should be cited. “Either you comply with the code or you don’t,” he said.
Pinto suggested they put the question in abeyance until they look at the code, but Mattioli said he thought they should make a decision and possibly adjust the code later.
Councilman Jeff Hmara said he was trying to figure out what the intent was for the 15 percent coverage in the code.
“The only thing I came away with, and maybe I missed something, was clutter,” he said. “Clearly, the appearance of something like this façade that looks like a Mexican cantina, is attractive in some areas, but I don’t think that’s the intent of the kind of appearance we’re trying to create in these centers, and that’s why the code was developed that way.”
Hmara said he would be willing to re-examine the code but did not think that the application before them would ever meet his approval.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think getting to 100 percent would make a lot of sense to me from an aesthetic point of view,” Hmara said. “While I find this attractive and interesting, I would say, not in this setting.”
He added that if State Farm is in violation, it should be cited as well, since it had been brought to their attention.
Swift said he did not wish to revisit the codes. “Just think about it,” he said. “If there is a pizza place down the street, do we have to approve artwork for the pizza place, and 100 feet the other way we have to approve the artwork for a Japanese restaurant? I think what we’ve done in the past is appropriate.”
Valuntas agreed with Pinto’s desire to re-examine the code but also appreciated Swift’s comments.
“I’m the least aesthetically adept person I probably know, so I don’t know that I’m a good gauge for it, but I look at this and I like it,” he said. “But as Councilman Swift said, I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there that may not, and I see the reason for promoting uniformity.”
Pinto agreed that it would be difficult to modify the code to make the mural comply but still afford protection from unattractive advertising.
“This is a little different than what we have seen in the past,” Pinto said.
He added that with all the empty storefronts in the village, he would not want to take action that would cause the restaurant to become empty again. “The balance of what makes a restaurant successful or not is not only the quality of the food, but the ambiance,” Pinto said.
Swift made a motion to deny the sign variance, which carried 4-1 with Pinto dissenting.