Ballooning: Rug shop fine inflates over $3,000
To former rug shop owner Mahmood Pasha, Albemarle County's ban on commercial use of balloons is a "stupid" law. "If balloons are illegal, why sell them?" he wonders after a March 23 General District Court appearance for a zoning violation that could cost him $3,200.
County Code prohibits "floating signs," as balloons are dubbed in a sign ordinance that took an Arby's owner to task in 2003 for flying an Arby's flag. Pennants, ribbons, spinners, and streamers are verboten, as are strobe lights, strings of lights... and balloons.
Pasha was cited October 31 for the balloon above his going-out-of-business Rug Depot shop on U.S. 29 North, and he was ordered to "cease and desist" by November 7.
According to the ordinance, a first violation brings a $200 penalty and that jumps to $500 for each subsequent violation. So when a zoning administrator drove by on November 21, December 2, January 9 and 21, and February 6 and 17 and observed the still-flying balloon, each trip earned Pasha an additional $500 penalty.
"That tenant has had a balloon frequently," says Albemarle zoning enforcement manager Rob Heide, pointing out that Pasha had 30 days to appeal the notice of violation, and didn't.
So what's the big deal with balloons anyway?
"I would imagine it has to do with safety and with aesthetics," answers Heide. "We've seen strong winds where the balloon is blown parallel to the roadway. If they descend into traffic, it's a distraction."
Heide says the county does not prosecute those who would tie balloons to a mailboxes to indicate the scene of a birthday party, nor has it sought to cite the ToyLift, an annual charitable event, notes Heide. The ordinance, he says, is "specifically tied to commercial use."
To area Libertarians, the county's regulation tramples liberty and free speech, and is business-unfriendly.
"We don't need bureaucrats to nitpick," declares John Munchmeyer, chairman of the Jefferson Area Libertarians, a group that rallied around Arby's owner Tom Slonaker when he was told to take down his flag. "This is the land of the free," adds Munchmeyer.
"It's a sign of celebration," agrees Pasha. "What's wrong with that? It's such a stupid law. Who is getting hurt? Is it heroin? Is it cocaine or crack?"
Pasha's store went out of business March 28, but he plans to return to court May 27 to protest the fine.
Meanwhile, his cross-the-street neighbor, Jim Price Chevrolet, has experimented with balloons of its own.
"It certainly has been open knowledge that Albemarle doesn't allow them," says Jim Price general manager Sandy Fewell, pointing out the dealership will fly them for Saturday sales, but hasn't gone in for the long-term inflatables.
"I think customers think it looks festive," says Fewell, who confesses he would like to have his own permanent balloon installation. "I like those little blimps," he says.
"The fact they're picking on [Pasha] is sad," says Fewell. "I thought they just picked on car dealers."