Salt Lake City has ordered a well-known lingerie and adult toy store in Sugar House to take down some of its glitzy window signs, and the building’s landlord is pushing back.
George A. Hunt, an attorney and co-owner of Blue Boutique’s building at 1383 E. 2100 South, says a January citation from the city alleging that too many of the store’s windows were covered with signs is unconstitutional — not for free speech reasons but because city inspectors were responding to an anonymous resident complaint.
In a direct challenge to the way Utah’s capital city enforces its zoning rules, Hunt has appealed the citation. He says Salt Lake City’s practice of basing its enforcement primarily on complaints makes it legally arbitrary and vulnerable to discrimination.
“It’s based solely on whether some guy is pissed off,” Hunt said Thursday. “You can’t get more arbitrary than that.”
“In order to be constitutional,” Hunt wrote in his appeal to the city, “the sign ordinance must be clear and it must be enforced in an even-handed and rational manner.”
But a top attorney for Salt Lake City has labeled Hunt’s arguments “circular” and “entirely misguided,” and is expected to challenge his appeal at a newly scheduled June 14 public hearing.
Hunt, according to Senior City Attorney Paul Nielson, has failed to point out how the city’s approach is arbitrary or discriminatory “because there is nothing arbitrary or discriminatory about the city investigating each code violation complaint it receives and pursuing enforcement action when there is merit to the complaint, based on concrete evidence and objective standards.”
“Simply put,” Nielson said in documents, “the city does not play favorites.”
Hunt says the citation appears to have been triggered by a special sale display of unclothed mannequins arrayed outside the store, their private parts covered with a banner reading, “Sexy. Sexy. Sexy.”
“It was not risqué,” Hunt said. “Nothing obscene about it. It’s what Blue Boutique sells.”
But Doug Dansie, a senior city planner, said the citation focused on the extensive window coverings at the adult store, which he noted violate a rule that no more than a quarter of exterior windows be covered on buildings zoned for neighborhood commercial purposes.
According to Dansie, the rule reflects the city’s wider goal of avoiding featureless walls facing streets, particularly in residential areas. Blue Boutique, Dansie said, “basically filled in all their windows, and someone complained.”
The city issued a Jan. 2 citation letter telling Hunt and building co-owner John Frank to reduce the window ads within 30 days or face fines. Instead, they filed an appeal Jan. 29 and the matter is now set for a June 14 hearing before a city appeals officer.
According to city documents, if the city prevails, Hunt will have to either comply with the citation or take the matter to court. If Hunt’s appeal is upheld, however, the city’s Enforcement Division “will need to re-evaluate its process for responding to zoning complaints.”
Hunt doesn’t deny the windows are covered, noting that signs on three of the building’s east-facing windows are there to shield the store’s piercing studio from public view.
“It’s a privacy issue,” he said.
Nor is Hunt disputing details of the ordinance but rather the city’s lack of a systematic way of enforcing zoning rules. In an informal survey of other Sugar House businesses, Hunt said he found several similar violations that had drawn no enforcement action.
Dansie acknowledged that city officers base much of their enforcement on complaints, most of which come in anonymously — but he added enforcers will also note violations on their own and take action.
“We don’t have zoning police to go out on patrol,” he added.