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All signs pointed to closing for Carsons

July 19, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

SHARPSBURG - After more than a year of battling the Town of Sharpsburg over signs for their New Central Restaurant, owners Paul and JoAnn Carson have decided to close.

The absence of a sign on Main Street to encourage drivers to turn onto a side street to reach the restaurant during last year's tourism season hurt the health of both the business and the Carsons, Paul Carson said.

Carson, 66, said he has lost 20 pounds, his wife has lost 40 pounds and their 104 S. Mechanic St. restaurant lost considerable business after they had to remove a temporary directional sign at Town Square three months after opening in November 1996.

That was the first of a string of signs Carson posted without getting a permit, said Charles Wagaman, the town's attorney and zoning administrator.

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The latest is a wooden sign in the bed of a pickup truck parked on South Mechanic Street at Town Square.

Wagaman said he thinks the sign law the Town Council adopted last spring forbids that sign because it's not on the restaurant's property.

Mayor George Kesler said the truck's sign detracts from the newly renovated Town Square. Kesler said he's heard at least five complaints about it.

Only one of four neighbors near the restaurant who were interviewed Friday said she had a problem with any of the restaurant's signs. And she said that was the one that was removed in March.

Town officials could restrict or forbid parking near the square to eliminate the truck sign, Wagaman said.

Carson said he got a $25 ticket when he parked a similar sign in a truck near the Amoco on Main Street for the July 4 holiday weekend. The "No Parking" sign wasn't clearly visible behind some tree branches, he said.

The ongoing struggle to advertise his restaurant to tourists cruising Main Street to visit Civil War-related attractions has caused the couple considerable stress, driving them to decide on Friday to close shop at the end of the tourism season in October, Carson said.

He said he will not apply for another permit in town.

He said he wants to make it clear that most of the townspeople have been supportive. It is town officials who have given him a hard time, he said.

"We're not Shoney's or Red Lobster. We're just poor people, trying to make a living. We're not a big chain with millions and millions to advertise," Carson said.

The Carsons said offering tip jars probably would have turned business around, but they don't think gambling is appropriate for a family-style restaurant.

Vice Mayor Sidney Gale said he was sorry to hear the restaurant is closing.

"I have, over the past two years, heard every single councilman express an interest in his continued success at least once, and some of those recently. However, Mr. Carson has failed to follow zoning rules that everybody has to follow," Gale said.

Gale said at least one permit was denied because neither Carson nor his wife attended a hearing for the permit.

Several of the signs were not on the restaurant's property, leading to automatic denial, Gale said. It's then up to the applicant to appeal the permit to the zoning board.

"Every sign he's put up has been without a permit and the only permits he's applied for have been after signs were up and then only when we insisted that he apply for a permit," Wagaman said.

"It's quite apparent this man is going to do what he wants to do and he's going to thumb his nose at the municipal authorities because he doesn't care," Wagaman said.

Former Mayor Ron Milburn said he was "sick and tired of the way this town does its corruptive style of government. It's pick-and-choose government."

Milburn also tried to get a permit for the Carsons but was denied because the sign would have been on his property, not the restaurant's.

Drivers on Main Street couldn't see the restaurant or a sign in front of it unless they were leaning out the window, looking down South Mechanic Street at the intersection, Milburn said.

Jim Kehoe, owner of Antietam Gallery, said he could sympathize with the Carsons.

He said he had a similar experience about four years ago when he was given permission by a landowner to put a sign near Town Square and was later told twice to remove it by a town official.

"There's a little guy that put a lot of money and a lot of time into it and got nailed by the people down there," Kehoe said.

Gale said Kehoe's sign wouldn't have been permissible because it wasn't on the store's property.

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