Tuesday, February 2, 2010

They're Not at Liberty to Wave Anymore

Here's our beloved Statue of Liberty, attracting a friendly gull. This story isn't about her. It's about someone who is using a costumed character of her to sell tax services and is now in a tussle with the city.

You know those poor folks who stand next to the road, wearing some silly costume and waving at drivers, trying to get people into the store? It turns out they're called "wavers" and a woman who owns the Liberty Tax Service franchise on Route 6, the one near the Eblen's store, says without these employees dressed like the Statue of Liberty, her business would be bust. But they violate zoning regs, says Zoning Enforcement Officer T.J. Decrisantis. I wrote this about it for Wednesday's edition of The Bristol Press (www.bristolpress.com). But the question I still have is, do people really pull in and have their taxes done because someone is wearing a Statue of Liberty costume and waving at them? I don't know about you, readers, but this would not compel me to stop, though Devine says it is her only way of getting customers.

In case anyone is interested, Devine's the one who alerted the media on this one, sending press releases to newspapers and television stations and who knows who else. Decrisantis says that when he showed up today for a scheduled meeting, in walked Channel 3. I'm not sure if that was pure happenstance or not. Devine says she didn't tip off the TV crew, but Decrisantis says he felt "ambushed."

Here's the story I wrote:

BRISTOL – Erin Devine, who owns a Liberty Tax Service franchise on Route 6, says her employees who dress as the Statue of Liberty and wave to passing drivers bring in all her customers.

Zoning Enforcement Office T.J. Decrisantis said the costumed people are out there to grab attention and violate the city’s zoning regulations.

“Based on what I see, it could be interpreted as a moving sign,” said Decrisantis.

Devine disagreed.

“They’re people in costumes,” she said, not signs.

Decrisantis said he first visited the tax service because of an anonymous complaint about the traffic sightline. There were many American flags between the sidewalk and the highway, he said, and a waving person dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

He gave Devine a zoning inspection notice, Decrisantis said, and asked her to “tone it down” with the waver until he could talk to zoning commissioners about the intent of the regulations.

He said he asked her to move the flags to the other side of the sidewalk – about four feet back, so they wouldn’t block drivers’ view.

Devine, who opened only a month ago, said her business will fail without the wavers. She said it is the only marketing strategy used throughout the company.

“This is our branding. This is how we’re recognized.”

Of the 25 people who work at her tax office, 12 are wavers, working part-time, Devine said.

“These are people who are trying to earn a living,” said Devine, who refused to say how much they are paid to stand on the street and wave.

They’re out there Monday through Saturday, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays, she said, working in shifts of about four hours each.

Decrisantis said he’s not trying to put anyone out of work or otherwise hurt the tax service.

“They’re doing everything they can to get business in the door,” Decrisantis said, but asked, “If they can do it, can other businesses do it?”
If every business on Route 6 employed a costumed waver, said Decrisantis, “it would look like a circus or Las Vegas.”

City Building Official Guy Morin said the costumed character qualifies as an “attention getting device.”

“The regulations are pretty clear about it,” said Morin, who was the zoning enforcement officer before taking his current position.

Decrisantis said he visited both Liberty Tax Service offices on Farmington Avenue on Tuesday to deliver each an inspection notice, this time with a notation that they stop using the wavers within 10 days.

He said it is not a cease and desist order. That would come if the wavers are still there in 10 days, he said.

A cease and desist order gives the business 10 days to comply or appeal. An appeal must be filed within 30 days of the issuance of the cease and desist order, and is heard by the Zoning Board of Appeals.

“I certainly will appeal it,” said Devine.

Until an appeal is heard, the city won’t enforce a cease and desist order, so the business can continue the alleged violation until a ruling is issued.

It’s possible, said Decrisantis, that the entire tax season will be over before the issue is decided.

“It’ll probably start all over again next year,” said Decrisantis.

Ted Parke, a part-time tax preparer for Devine’s business, called the city’s action “typical bureaucratic nonsense.” He said the practice of using wavers is “huge” in Southern California.

“It’s not some deadbeat out there,” said Parke. “We say they are advertisers using their First Amendment rights.”

Decrisantis said he couldn’t stop someone from walking up and down the street dressed as the Statue of Liberty, but he said this is clearly different.

Wavers work 15-25 hours a week, said Parke, and sometimes, there are two on the job at once.

Two people waving “does garner a lot of attention,” said Parke.


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