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‘Line in the sand’

CODY BINKLEY, co-owner of Burgers & Vine on First Street East, has drawn a line in the sand over the restaurant’s pirate flag. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

CODY BINKLEY, co-owner of Burgers & Vine on First Street East, has drawn a line in the sand over the restaurant’s pirate flag. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

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If it weren’t for the planter boxes, the current fight over a pirate flag at Burgers & Vine might never have happened.

“I put in 100 hours on those planter boxes,” said Codi Binkley on Thursday, clarifying his position on why he and Carlo Cavallo, co-owners of the newly opened burger joint at 400 First St. E., are determined to leave the Jolly Roger up.

For the restaurateurs, the half-barrel planters – which Binkley built himself – became emblematic of the difficulties the two faced in getting their business open.

After installing them, they were told they needed approval from the Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission, which they obtained.

“I put them back up,” Binkley said. “A week later, I get a letter from the city.” Now they needed architectural plans drawn up, featuring the planter boxes, to be submitted for a building permit.

The process cost thousands of dollars, according to Binkley, but they did it and put the planters back up. Then came another letter.

“After two permits that we got – design review and building permits – now we needed a third permit, the encroachment permit,” Cavallo said. This one would take four months to a year to get approved, they were told.

“So we took (the planters) down,” Cavallo continued. “And then we opened up. … And then I get a call from the city, maybe three or four days after we opened.”

This time it was Wendy Atkins, associate planner for the city’s Planning Department, calling about the pirate flag. “We received a complaint back when the sign was first displayed,” Atkins said this week. “So we contacted the business owner and let them know what the sign requirements were with regard to a temporary display.”

According to the city’s sign ordinance, some signs can be approved administratively, some by the design review commission, and some are exempt. Grand opening signs can be put up without a permit for a limited time – and the Jolly Roger, Atkins said, falls under that category.

“That’s what Planning Director David Goodison and I have considered this to be, is a grand opening sign,” Atkins explained. City code allows such signs to stay up for 15 days, after which they must be taken down absent a permit from the city.

But for the restaurant owners, frustration with the permitting process had boiled over. They resolved to keep the flag right where it is.

“At this point, it’s line-in-the-sand time,” Cavallo said. Both say they’ve had enough, and are leaving up the Jolly Roger on principle. They also say several other Plaza business owners are backing them up.

The business partners also noted the emotional reasons behind the flag going up in the first place: “My childhood best friend died six weeks ago,” Cavallo said.

To make him feel better, Binkley “put the flag up to make me laugh. And it’s not easy to get up on that roof and put that flag up. And I think that’s one reason why it stayed.”

Originally, he added, “The flag was never meant to stay up for a long time.”

Binkley said he wishes the city’s permitting process were clearer from the beginning, and Cavallo agrees.

“Nothing is streamlined with these people, and they change things on the fly,” he said, adding, “Everyone is complaining.”

Others, however, are complaining about the flag itself, according to several city officials. Kelso Barnett, a member of the design review commission, said the issue even came up during a Feb. 25 meeting.

“It wasn’t an agenda item,” he said. However, “at that point, quite a few people complained to me: How did this happen?”

Goodison confirmed that, “Typically, enforcement actions, especially with regard to signs, are complaint-driven.” (He said there are exceptions in cases of “gross violations of the sign ordinance.”)

Barnett believes the Burgers & Vine owners are picking the wrong fight, and worries that it may backfire, resulting in more regulatory difficulty for everyone.

“The city bends over backwards to help small business,” he said, adding that Burgers & Vine is “everything locals want on the Plaza.”

And yet, he said, Binkley and Cavallo “mismanaged the opening” of their restaurant – and should not be blaming the city for their missteps.

Unlike Grandma Linda’s Ice Cream – another Plaza business, which recently won a design dispute over its pink door – Binkley and Cavallo “didn’t go through a process at all,” Barnett said.

“But even so, we’ll evaluate this like we evaluate any issue, with the consideration that this is one of Sonoma’s most historic corners, not a tree house.”

That’s only if the Jolly Roger issue comes before the commission. Prior to that, the city or the business could back down – or the fight could escalate.

“The city, if they’re smart, they’ll just let it go. It’ll just die down, and we’ll probably take down the flag,” Cavallo said.

Barnett said much the same thing, in reverse.

“I just wish he didn’t press this,” he said of Binkley.

“He seems disappointed and frustrated with all the regulations on small business. And I fear that if he presses this he’s going to make it worse.”

According to Goodison, many of the Plaza’s existing flags – such as four highly visible ones hanging from the Swiss Hotel – are grandfathered in because they predate the city’s sign ordinance, which was added in 2000 and amended in 2011 and 2013.

“The Swiss Hotel has been in operation for almost 100 years now,” he said. “And they’ve been flying those flags for a long time.”

Meanwhile, certain flags are essentially exempt from the code.

“We wouldn’t regard an American flag, for example, as just a decorative object. And if they were flying an American flag of that size at that location, we really wouldn’t have anything to say about it,” Goodison said.

Symbols can be ambiguous, and so are laws regulating them. A 2003 ruling by a three-judge panel of California’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared that “viewpoint neutrality” was required for flags in government-owned spaces – meaning that Caltrans, for example, could remove flags from highway overpasses.

Just last month, the same court ruled that a South Bay high school could ban American flag T-shirts as they were being worn during Cinco de Mayo, potentially sparking confrontations or even violence between Latino and non-Latino students.

Cities are often left to their own devices when it comes to regulating signs, flags, banners and the like. And Sonoma’s Plaza is something of a special case.

The site of Burgers & Vine – a historic structure that once housed the Old Sonoma Creamery – sits directly across Spain Street from the Mission.

“People who don’t understand Sonoma just roll their eyes” when they see stories like this, Barnett said.

As for Cavallo, he now plans to add a pirate-themed burger to the menu, featuring Jamaican jerk rub, Scotch bonnet peppers, rum demi-glace and an ale-soaked cheddar.

UPDATE: This story originally included misleading information about a sign at that location. The photo and paragraph have since been removed from the online version of this story.

  • Darla Brocco Kobza

    Isn’t that Rocco Benedetto?

  • H. Miller

    To support Carlo and Codi, I intend to patronize Burgers and Vine regularly as long as the flag flies.

    • Phineas Worthington

      I second that. Sir, if you are the Mr. Miller who contributes to Forbes and is a regular guest on the Jon Batchelor show, I truly admire your work.

  • Tim

    Personally I think the city should back down! Sonoma is inundated with people that feel they need to be in control of every fly that lands on any “historical” building.

  • Michael Cahill

    Darla, Yes that sure is Rocco and the sign above him actually was part of the set dressing for a movie that was filmed in Sonoma in the early 70s called ‘Mr Million’. Lots of signs and building logos were re-purposed downtown to better represent the small Texas town of Sweetwater, where the movie’s immagrant Italian main character landed in America to find his fortunes!
    Maybe Carlo and Codi should start writing a new script for Hollywood and include the ‘Jolly Roger’ as their main character!

  • dd

    Liberals want to control everything in your life.. they will probably also want all burgers cooked well since they do not want red anywhere.. just blue..

    • Wyneaux

      Don’t know how you figured out that “liberals” were involved in this issue. A “liberal” is defined in the dictionary as “broad minded” and “not bound by orthodox tenets.” On the other hand a “conservative” is defined as “opposed to change.” Maybe the word you’re looking for is bureaucrat. Or maybe you just wanted to inanely vent?

  • Jay Tierney

    This is getting ridiculous. Pink doors, a flag, etc. – who cares? The real blight was that building sitting empty right on the square for nearly a decade. Where was the outrage and concern about that?

    • Wyneaux

      Here, here!

  • In Sonoma Since 1972

    Ok…

    Firstly, I think the Jolly Roger is totally inappropriate for ANY structure in the Plaza’s historic/business district. That said…

    Secondly, it would be nice if the Index~Tribune had a research department. As Mr. Cahill noted earlier in this thread, the Hog Leg Saloon sign was a temporary movie prop for the 1976 (no, not the “mid-to-late 1960’s”) filming of ‘Mr. Billion’, a spaghetti western which starred Terence Hill, Jackie Gleason, Slim Pickens, R.G. Armstrong, and Chill Wills. Faux, cardboard Texas license plates were attached to cars parked in the camera’s view during early morning filming…and the ‘Sonoma Fire Station’ sign, which hung prominently over the Patten Street station’s apparatus bay doors, was covered with a sign which read ‘Sweetwater Fire Dept’.

    I can almost see the headlines of the news story, should the Index~Tribune get ahold of a copy of THAT photo:

    ‘SONOMA KNOWN AS SWEETWATER BEFORE BEAR FLAG REVOLT’

    Thirdly, take the flag down, Codi! Really, bro?

    • Mike Stephens

      I agree with Sonoma Since 1972. The flag is stupid, but what is even more stupid is the text that wraps the entire awning. Don’t you think if it is a burger joint they would advertise burgers over the door and not BBQ Joint, Pies, Music, Water, Tables…. Blah blah… It was awful the place sat vacant for so long, but where is Sonoma’s Historical Society or Design Review Team that avoids these far too often lapse of design judgement?

  • http://www.westcottdesign.com G. Westcott

    I don’t understand what the big deal is giving the town some personality other than history and wine.

  • Don Frances

    Sorry about the confusion over the faux “Hog Leg Saloon” sign. We’ve since removed that from the online version of this story and will post a correction in print.

    • In Sonoma Since 1972

      Thank you, Don.

  • jmk

    There are those in the City bureaucracy who truly believe they are bending over backward to help small businesses. As a Plaza business owner I think they need to do a better job. The amount of time it took Carlo and Codi to get their permits was unconscionable (Jay Tierney’s comment about the blight was spot on) – and their situation is not unique. I don’t know all the details of their story, but I have been closely following another Plaza opening that took 26 months to get their permits. The City tells businesses “we want to help, our process is not onerous” but 26 months seems onerous and not at all helpful to those applicants. There’s far to much of “and oh, by the way…” going on, as seen in the example of the B&V planters. The design review, building permit and encroachment permit should have been on a planning checklist provided to the applicant at the beginning of the process, and all three permits should have been parallel-tracked. The “on-the-fly changes” applicants are subjected to are a real problem as well, and the City needs to come up with a process to lock in project requirements early – otherwise Planning exposes itself to liability for litigation which would cost all of us. Just my $2-worth (inflation, you know).

    • Mike Stephens

      I don’t agree with the city holding up permits, but it sounds we don’t have the proper guidelines/rules for buidling/remodeling/signage for the square. It is important to discuss this and have guidelines as it is the only part of Sonoma that is somewhat preserved. If you can build any typical building with inferior finishes and design then the square becomes much like the area that surrounds Sonoma; poorly planned and designed. Sonoma is not anywhere USA and needs to get it together!

  • Steven Beckwith

    My wife and I went to this eatery last night and the “Pirate” flag is appropriate for this joint.

  • KC

    Oh boy…just purchased a house in Sonoma and subscribed to the Sonoma Index-Trib emails. The first stories were about the pink door and now about this flag. You can’t make this up! Who in their right mind would open a business here after hearing all this? A winery? Not so fast, they are talking about regulating those as well…

    • In Sonoma Since 1972

      Welcome to Sonoma, KC.

      I’m hoping the attraction was the quaint, quiet, historic beauty…garnished with a little taste of wine…and not the 3-ring circus some folks are trying to turn it into.

  • A. S. Miller

    My wife and I have been through the Sonoma City permitting
    system twice for home remodeling. I know it is not the Plaza, but we also had to go through design review to keep the neighbors happy.

    If you are very well prepared it is not a problem. I had so many
    people tell me what a pain it is to do business with the city and how tough
    they are. I found it to be just the opposite. Tell them your vision and show
    them all the changes and plans up front and it goes by smoothly.

    That was are experience, working with Joe and Cathy and the team
    at the front desk was a pleasure.

    Thank you,
    A. S. Miller

  • Phineas Worthington

    Looks like I have another convert on my side that thinks the regulatory controls are excessive.