Mythical lady stirs up a zoning storm

Mythical lady stirs up a zoning storm

This Starbucks mermaid sign is at the center of a legal debate in Smithfield.

SMITHFIELD - Unlikely as it may seem in this landlocked community, legal broadsides are about to be fired in a dispute involving a mermaid.

It's the figurehead for a Starbucks coffee shop - she's a relatively new landmark on busy Putnam Pike - frolicking there on a directional sign, that municipal zoning officials want scuttled.

But Linear Retail Properties, the realty firm that leases space to Starbucks in The Commons shopping center, wants the sign to stay, and has brewed up an appeal that will be heard Jan. 29.

The landlord is under orders from the Zoning Board of Review to either remove the roadside sign or significantly reduce its size - a move that would likely leave no room for the lady of the deep.

Last May, the Zoning Board ordered removal of the sign, between five and six feet tall, saying it's considerably larger than standard directional signs in the shopping center and was not board-approved.

According to board Chairman George McKinnon, original plans called for a much smaller sign at the shopping center's Putnam Pike entrance, whose sole purpose was to direct motorists to the drive-up window at Starbucks' coffee shop.

But Linear official Bryan Furze asserts that the larger sign was always part of the plan, that a smaller one would go unnoticed as drivers hurry by on the busy road, and that it has considerably improved pedestrian safety by getting motorists to the drive-up over the shortest possible route through the parking lot.

And, he adds, Linear spent significant money on the sign, whose mermaid appears to be an innocent bystander caught in legal crossfire.

Mermaids have represented Starbucks ever since the firm's beginnings 43 years ago in Seattle. Looking to connect their enterprise with the seagoing history of the coffee trade, company founders named it for Starbuck, first mate on the ship Pequot in the novel "Moby-Dick."

The Zoning Board's decision began to make waves a few months ago when the town's deputy zoning official, Lawrence E. Enright Jr., sent Linear a certified letter noting that the sign was still there despite the board's order of last May and "will need to be removed or replaced as soon as possible."

Linear is appealing the violation letter back to the Zoning Board, whose chairman, McKinnon, says, "The sign is very nice but it isn't what we approved."

Meanwhile, in a side issue involving the case, McKinnon said he was cleared by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission to participate in hearings involving Starbucks.

He said he sought the commission's opinion when Starbucks first applied for permission to open because he is a buyer and merchandiser for Colbea Enterprises, the landlord of a Starbucks competitor on Putnam Pike, Marylou's Coffee.

Colbea owns a network of Shell gas stations, including the one in which a Marylou's is located three-tenths of a mile from Starbucks.

In its 2012 opinion, the Ethics Commission advised that McKinnon was not in a position of conflict because his work has no direct connection with Colbea's tenants and his employment doesn't depend on the success or failure of Marylou's.

Next Wednesday's hearing begins at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.