TRAVERSE CITY — Michael Hennink put a sign in front of his new Village Grill restaurant to draw customers for what he calls the “best whitefish in town.”
The plan worked: 12 new customers stopped by the restaurant on Three Mile Road the day the sign went up. They sampled the whitefish, burgers and more.
"Last Friday was our best Friday ever because of that sign," Hennink said.
But the street-side advertising also brought Hennink a very big headache -- conflict with East Bay Township zoning officials, who said Hennink needs to have permits for all restaurant signage. Hennick described the zoning officials as relentless; he said they even want him to get a permit for the chalkboard sign onto which he writes his daily lunch specials.
“You have to get a permit for every single sign,” Hennink said. The “township apparently doesn’t want me here.”
Township officials dispute that claim. Township Zoning Administrator Leslie Couturier said the township wants Hennink's restaurant to succeed, but he located his business in the township’s village center zoning district, which has stringent rules for commercial buildings.
East Bay's planning commission is working on changing the village center zoning regulations to make them less stringent, but for now, she said, rules are rules.
“Temporary signs and banners are not allowed in that zoning district," Couturier said. “The sign that was brought in and put on wheels is considered a temporary sign.”
Glen Lile, township supervisor, said zoning rules are about “consistency so people can expect to have reasonable neighborhoods.”
Hennink portrays those regulations as onerous. He said the conflict started three days after he opened his doors in February and noticed a woman taking photos outside his business.
“So I go out, and she got back in her car before I could get over and talk to her. She saw me coming. About an hour later (the property manager) called me and said he had received an email from the township stating that my signs had to be either permitted or taken down.”
The zoning conflict escalated, Hennick said, when a township official came and threatened to haul off a beat-up recreation vehicle Hennink parked in back of his small restaurant. Hennick used the RV for office space and storage.
“If we didn’t get our permits in order, and if we didn’t get the RV we have parked out in our back lot (taken care of)… he would start issuing multiple hundreds of dollars a day in fines, and he would confiscate my RV,” Hennink said. “You can’t legally confiscate any of my personal property.”
Couturier said Hennink is not being targeted. Her office is just enforcing township ordinances.
“We are just doing what we normally do if someone calls,” she said. “We are by no means (trying to) quell any of his business. The more business we have, the better it is across the board.”
“It’s not like I’m out there looking for problems,” she said. “I don’t have time for that.”