In an unusually well-attended meeting of Village of Burns Lake (VBL) council on Aug. 20, 2013, council unanimously voted to approve the permit application for business owner Gwyndolyn Nicholas’ ‘No to Enbridge’ sign despite two complaints brought against it.
The sign, on the prominent sidewall of Nicholas’ downtown Burns Lake building, contained the slogan, “Pure water. Fresh Salmon. No Enbridge pipeline”. The slogan and a logo of the Lakes District Clean Water Coalition (LDCWC) are superimposed over a pristine mountain scene.
Two businesses operate out of the location: Nicholas’ business, Health in Order, and a separate business, the New Leaf Cafe.
The sign went up in the first week of July. On July 10, Nicholas received notice that the sign had been put up without following appropriate by-law protocols, which require a permit when a new sign replaces an old. Previously, a typical business sign of the same size occupied the space.
At the same time she was notified that the VBL had received two formal complaints that the sign was offensive. This triggered an automatic review.
Nicholas would have to formally defend the sign against the complaints in writing, as well as submit the appropriate sign change application by Aug. 9.
In the meantime, she was free to leave the sign up, at least until this Aug. 20 meeting of VBL council.
The details of the staff report to council – which referenced over 30 letters and emails in support of the sign – was not discussed during council session.
The report recommended that the sign not be found offensive and that the sign permit application be approved. Council voted unanimously to approve the recommendation.
Mayor Luke Strimbold addressed the gathered audience to comment on the issue.
“I want to thank those who were respectful of the process,” Strimbold said. “We appreciate those who took the time to write a letter and I’m encouraged by the fact that people are concerned and taking the initiative to become informed.”
Several members of the more than 20 members of the public present rose to speak during public comment periods, not only in support of Nicholas’ sign, but to express their concerns in general over the proposed pipeline project and possible ill effects, whether locally, at its source, or elsewhere along the route.
The question of what counts as offensive was brought up more than once.
“The word offensive is such an arbitrary word,” local business owner Wayne Brown said. “The word offensive needs to have better clarification. Is that something that can be looked at?”
“We can take it under consideration,” Strimbold replied. “The report [is] very clear that it [the sign] was deemed not offensive from staff’s perspective.”
The mayor was asked by Burns Lake resident Paula Laurie to clarify village council’s position on Enbridge.
“Our position at this point is that we are neutral,” Strimbold said. “We are waiting for the conclusion of the JRP (Joint Review Panel into the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline Project). We, like others, are gathering information.”
Strimbold assured Laurie that if council felt the need to revisit the issue after the release of the final JRP report, then that discussion would be in a public forum like a regularly scheduled VBL council meeting.
Nicholas was generally satisfied with the council’s decision, although she reiterated Brown’s concerns over the word offensive and described the upsetting experience of receiving a letter from the village expressing the accusation that her sign was considered offensive.
“Any business owner in Burns Lake isn’t going to put up a sign that is going to turn away people they do business with, people who are also their neighbours,” she said. “I would never put anything up to offend anyone.”
Nicholas also expressed reservations over what may be the inconsistent application of village sign by-laws.
“I’ve put up a sign before and did not receive any comments that I needed to have a permit,” she said. “I’ve talked to other business owners [who] have never received a request to obtain a sign permit.”
“I think going forward we really have to see consistency,” Nicholas added. “If there are bylaws and they’re important to the Village of Burns Lake and [local] businesses, then they have to be enforced consistently.”
No one present spoke for the sign’s removal.
Despite the conclusion of the controversy surrounding this particular sign in downtown Burns Lake, the debate over what counts as acceptable signage in a public space in Burns Lake may not be over.
“Downtown revitalization is a prime example of a public space where we [have] invested tax-payer dollars,” Strimbold said in his earlier address to the audience. “Trying to keep that as a neutral space… in the future we’ll have [a] conversation around that.”