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Sunday, February 13, 2011


Where I live, Marin County, just above the Golden Gate Bridge, the people really band together to keep the place from becoming too overpopulated looking. When it comes to hilltop development, environmental integrity and billboards, they have raised the NIMBY standard to heights of new precedent.

County looks great, too. Not all overcrowded seeming as in other parts of the state.

While untold slices of the counties' population pie is involved in involved in new and better ways to be seen online, there remains one old school method for attracting attention to one's business that still works just fine - a sign.

Provided you follow all the proper procedures.

Which brings us to the issue of that new Manka's sign In West Marin's Inverness. Forever, it seems their old billboard has been pointing the way to their nearly one hundred year old country inn, (http://www.mankas.com/mankas/home.html), a favorite of food lovers around the world. Among the many other feathers in its headband, Manka's was rated one of the top 50 hotel restaurants by Food & Wine magazine, and was announced "the best restaurant in the United States" by London's Telegraph newspaper.

People seem comfortable with and love the place along with its accompanying charming, rustic cabins. Well, most people.

The sign was really old, however, and I guess someone, from within this imagined world-wide sphere of likability and comfort, decided it needed to be replaced with a new one.

OOps! That little decision  - to erect a new sign - an 8-foot, stainless steel, bright yellow "M" barely six months ago - has jolted the 1,400-resident community of Inverness, where Manka's has been in business since the early 1900s.

There are those in County of Marin, and in Inverness, who, acting very much like a bitter, jilted ex-spouse, have gotten in a snit about this sign. It's as if they suddenly noticed.

I guess so. The old one was crumbling away and looked like part of a Kinkaid painting, I suppose, while Manka's new one looks...well, bright. and yellow. and new. And way noticeable.

So, now, the county, after scores of decades, has suddenly decreed this sign is "a billboard," which is against the rules. No billboards in the bucolic backwoods of unincorporated Marin County are allowed. The deplorable new "M" has been ordered reMoved from its location on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

I have a good friend with whom I started out in radio, and watched gravitate into the arena of the courts, becoming a fine lawyer, specializing in this signage niche (http://www.signlaw.com/billboards.html). He really knows his stuff.

I shared with Randall Morrison, my old pal, our county's controversy and immediately he responded.

Says my friend, now super attorney for all things legal regarding billboards and signs, "Assuming the old sign was legal when installed, and further assuming that later the local government prohibited off-site commercial signs (as often happens), then the old sign became “legal, non-conforming,” commonly known as “grandfathered.”

"That means the sign could continue in use, but could not be changed..." (Other than enhancing it's now rustic position as "artwork," intrinsic to the landscape's scene, with patchwork, similar paint and retro-strengthening, I muse.)

That's not what happened, though. They made a new sign, painted it bright yellow and suddenly it did what a good sign should do. It made everyone notice. And that was its undoing.

"Unless state or local law provides otherwise, expansion of a nonconformity extinguishes a nonconforming right. This principle applies to any use of land, not just signs.," say Randall. "The sign owners should have sought permission to update / modernize the sign before making any changes." It could have been an even better piece of art.

Now, things are all different. Unless the town or the county is willing to reach into its collective heart and cut them some slack, century-old Manka's, an Inverness institution to the planet, is out of options. Visitors from around the globe, looking for Manka's praised gourmet eats, rustic atmosphere and hospitality may have a difficult time locating it while driving along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Without our hard core County law makers considering more than one point of view, we'll get a one-group, power-trip decision, automatically creating frustration and confusion.

Sadly, Marin has a history of bufoonery, recently refusing to allow a Marie Callenders Pie restaurant in unless they changed their franchise color scheme for this California county. Marie took her pies elsewhere.

Randy says the law is clear, "They (Manka's) do not have a legal right to return to the original sign. Their only shot now is through the political process, not the court process."

Fore sight, undertanding and negotiation might work here. Adhering to the idea of laws younger than the sign to which they apply isn't the intelligence of leadership, isn't even vision, misses the value of even hindsight

When one's perspective lags behind Hindsight can it be clarifying? Can it move forward? Can it contribute meaningfully to the population it is sworn to serve?

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