DOH orders Grandpa's Pantry signs removed
Huey DeMotto and William Light with the West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH) visited Grandpa's Pantry food store, near Marvin Chapel, in February and told proprietor Lois Mamak she had to remove her signs on Route 219. Light is a division chief with the DOH Charleston office and DeMotto works out of the Elkins office.
Mamak, a former state employee, said Light acted in an unprofessional manner.
"Mr. Light was incredibly rude and intimidating," she said. "A lot of it was the attitude they came in with. He said, 'well, these small businesses on these side roads never do make it. I saw your signs last year but I didn't bother with you because I didn't figure you'd be here this year.' That's just about a direct quote from him. I was somewhat insulted because he doesn't have any idea whether my business is going broke or making money. But I work hard at it and I thought it was very unprofessional."
Mamak said Light told her the DOH would be "hard on her" if she was difficult.
Mamak told the officials that removing the signs would put her out of business. Light and DeMotto told her they would come back and try to work something out. Instead of working something out, DeMotto showed up at Grandpa's Pantry on March 28 with a written order to remove the signs. Mamak told her daughter on the phone not to accept the paperwork. DeMotto left and mailed the order from Elkins.
After mailing the order, but before Mamak had received it, DeMotto contacted Mamek to set up an appointment to discuss the situation. A meeting was scheduled for April 12. Mamak received the order in the mail on April 6. She contacted both senators Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin to complain that the DOH was putting her out of business.
DeMotto called Mamak on April 12 and canceled the meeting. He told the business owner that he could do nothing, due to the congressional complaint, until the commissioner of the Department of Transportation had responded to inquiries from senators Manchin and Rockefeller. Mamek said DeMotto seemed upset that she had sought redress from her elected officials.
The distance from Route 219 is the problem for Mamak. If Grandpa's Pantry was within 660 feet of the sign, the sign would be legal. State law, enacted to comply with federal highway law - and allow DOH to receive federal highway funds - decrees that signs must be within 660 feet of a business and on the same side of the road. Grandpa's Pantry is three-quarters of a mile down a dirt road from Route 219. Obviously, the sign must be on the main road, Route 219, to do the business any good.
Mamak also contacted state legislators Walt Helmick, Denise Campbell and Clark Barnes, as well as Governor Tomblin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. As of May 2, only Tennant and Campbell had responded.
Tennant sent a letter stating it was a matter for the Legislature.
Mamak said Campbell offered a glimmer of hope that state law could be amended.
"She's actually willing to present a bill to the Legislature - an amendment to this thing to get it changed to make it reasonable so that small businesses can exist," she said. "We intend to work together, at this point, to get a bill drafted that she can take and she is going to contact some of the other legislators. She has to have so much support in the Legislature to get the bill in. So, she's going to start making those contacts."
In the meantime, Mamak faces a $50 to $500 fine if her signs still stand on May 6.
"I have an order to remove them by May 6," she said. "I had over $3,000 out in food orders that are coming in to my store, that I couldn't cancel. So, I can't take my sign down. I'm going to leave it up and I would be guilty of a criminal misdemeanor, according to the DOH, and this would be taken up through the Magistrate Court."
Campbell told the business owner that she would try to obtain a stay on the DOH order, but didn't make any guarantees.
Mamak said she would not take the signs down on May 6, but likely would remove the signs when her food inventory was depleted. She said she can't afford a lawyer to fight the state government.
The overall purpose of the highway laws affecting Grandpa's Pantry's signs is to beautify federally-funded highways. Mamak said she had never received a complaint about her signs.
"As a matter of fact, I have received a lot of compliments on our signs," she said. "The ones on 219 bring them in and then they enjoy the little signs up the driveway bringing them up here, so, we've had a lot of positive comments on our signs."
Most of Grandpa's Pantry's business comes from tourists and other out-of-county residents.
"Through the summer months, at least 75 percent is tourists and people who have permanent camps here, who come in and camp," said Mamak.
Light said it was important to enforce the sign laws in order for the state to receive federal highway money.
The State of West Virginia signed federal agreements," he said. "We were actually one of the 23 bonus states that signed on in 1961 that we would regulate signage. But, in 1965, all the states signed on and the State of West Virginia received $2 million as a bonus to continue to regulate outdoor advertising and salvage yards. In 1965, we got more federal dollars. Last year, we probably got around $46 million."
The Legislature eliminated a loophole allowing non-compliant advertising signs on private property in 2010. Mamak's signs are located on a neighbor's property, with permission, but off the DOH right-of-way.