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City to decide if coats equal signs

Wearing a large sign over one’s torso and marching down city sidewalks is a violation of Federal Way’s sign code.

Both Auburn-based Mattress Outlet and the city of Federal Way agreed on that last week (Dec. 4) at the company’s appeal before a city hearing examiner.

So, is wearing an oversized bright yellow parka emblazoned with loud advertising information also a violation?

That’s what Mattress Outlet officials want to find out.

The company, which operates one of its seven area stores along Pacific Highway South in Federal Way, was cited on Oct. 31 for violating the city sign code as people it contracted wore A-board type signs to advertise store sales as they paraded along sidewalks.

After being cited by a city code compliance officer, the company ordered its contractors to stop. Instead, the company replaced the signs with the $300 parkas that have been recently worn by contractors near the city’s busiest traffic.

At Mattress Outlet’s appeal hearing, Code Compliance Officer Martin Nordby argued the parkas also violate the city sign code. Unlike logo jackets worn by some employees of various businesses, such as the Boeing Co, the only reason for the jackets to exist was as an advertising tool.

Other outerwear “started out as jackets and the logos were added,” Nordby said.

Nordby said the city wished for the outerwear advertising campaign to stop, but did not request any fines be levied.

Mattress Outlet’s attorney Paul Cullen disagreed with Nordby’s assessment and said the store would try to carry on its current ad campaign.

“Our position is that the jacket is not a sign,” Cullen told the hearing examiner. “You’re going down a slippery slope when you start regulating clothing. Where do you stop when you start proscribing what people can wear in that respect?”

After 20 minutes of arguments, the city hearing examiner punted, sending the issue to Community Development Services director Kathy McClung.

“(Mattress Outlet) is supposed to submit a letter asking for an interpretation, and they haven’t done that yet,” McClung said Monday. “But I’m sure it’s coming soon.”

If Mattress Outlet sends a letter, it will be McClung’s job to determine if the bright parkas comply with the sign code. If she determines they do not, the company can return for another appeal hearing.

McClung has said she would make her decision within two weeks of receiving the letter.

“In the last five years we have had more than our share of sign issues because the city has put an emphasis on sign enforcement,” McClung said, “I don’t want to pre-judge (what the ruling will be).”

After last week’s hearing, Mattress Outlet President Kevin Wehmeyer said First Amendment guarantees of free speech should allow the jackets to be worn no matter what the city sign code states. His company faces a hearing next month in Kitsap County on the same issue.

“There’s no way they will be able to outlaw clothing,” Wehmeyer said.

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