ashland.news
June 13, 2024

Sign of the times: Iconic Ashland restaurant sign caught up in regulatory kerfuffle

Omar's Restaurant in October 2022. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
March 23, 2024

Registering it as ‘historic’ would be a slam dunk — but would bring with it an added layer of city review

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

Omar’s restaurant owner Jennifer Sink said she gave up accepting funding to expand her patio space after the restaurant’s iconic neon sign put her at odds with Ashland city code. 

In 2020, as the pandemic made operating a restaurant increasingly challenging, Sink said she was able to get funding from the U.S Small Business Administration to create an expanded patio space. She hired an architect and contractors and had a vision for a space with lights, music, fire pits and an awning with fans and misters for the summer heat that would seat 25 to 30 people. But when she took her plans to the city of Ashland’s Community Development Department, she said she was met with a choice — give up the patio idea or give up autonomy over her sign. 

The city passed a sign banning neon signs decades ago but historic signs like Omar’s were considered “grandfathered in.” In communications with city staff, Sink said she was told any renovations to the building would bring everything on the property under the scrutiny of city code. The ordinance banning neon signs could, though, be sidestepped if Omar’s sign was registered as a historic landmark. Sink said that option was an invitation to perpetually jump through hoops. 

Jennifer Sink in front of Omar’s restaurant in Ashland in 2021. Kelly James photo (kellyjamesphoto.com) via saif.com

“I did my research, I reached out to people in addition to reading about it. … I talked to some people who have historic registered buildings and they said, ‘Don’t do it, you don’t want to do that,’” she said. 

Sink said she learned once the sign was registered, she would have to get approval for any changes, including, she said, replacing a burned out bulb or a new coat of paint. Her patio design was also out of city code compliance because the previous owner of the business had expanded the patio into the Oregon Department of Transportation Highway 99 (Siskiyou Boulevard) right-of-way. Sink said she didn’t mind altering the patio plans to suit city code, but she didn’t want to choose between losing the sign or going through the bureaucratic work of formally registering it. Omar’s weathered the pandemic with a tented patio that Sink said was “tacky,” and not what she would have preferred. 

A tent in the patio and parking area at Omar’s shelters diners in February 2021 when COVID-19 restrictions were still in place. Ashland.news photo by Bert Etling

In an email from March 21, 2024, obtained by Ashland.news, Community Development Director Brandon Goldman wrote to Ashland City Councilor Dylan Bloom that the issue with the development plans at Omar’s were not about the sign. 

“The primary issue with her expansion plan … was not about needing to remove her sign. Instead, her expansion plans encroached beyond her property line. … Our previous communications don’t indicate she was advised it would need to be removed. Given the iconic nature, and longstanding presence of the Omar’s neon sign, this specific sign could likely qualify as a Historic Sign, making it permissible under our sign regulations,” Goldman wrote. 

Goldman included in the email a link to the city code regulations for signs, specifically the section dealing with historic signs: “The owner of any sign may request that said sign be reviewed for significance in the Historic Sign Inventory upon written application to the City Council. Application fees shall be the same as for Type II applications.” 

An illustration from April 2020 shows the existing patio configuration at Omar’s top, and proposed modifications, bottom.

According to city code, any replacement of any part on a historic sign “shall be permitted provided such replacements accurately reproduce the size, shape, color, and finish of the original.” If not, modifications of the sign would be subject to review by the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee and the Ashland City Council. 

“It’s regrettable that four years later, Jennifer remains upset about this, especially since she remembers it as a sign issue rather than a property boundary problem,”  Goldman wrote in the email. “No formal request was made for the patio plan discussed in the email below. … During COVID, we did allow a temporary tent at Omar’s for outdoor seating, which has been taken down. Currently, there remains fencing and seating on the ODOT right of way.”

An Omar’s employee posted on the Ashland, Oregon Community Facebook group Thursday afternoon asking residents if they had a preference between a new patio for the restaurant or losing the sign. The post generated more than a hundred comments before the end of the day. Sink said she received an email from Goldman on Friday, reminding her the sign is secure and eligible for becoming a historic landmark and that the patio plans would be approved if they were altered to fit city code. 

A Jackson County assessor’s map shows portions of Omar’s Restaurant patio area and parking spots at 1380 Siskiyou Blvd. encroaching into the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) right-of-way on Highway 99/Siskiyou Boulevard, as does a portion of a Southern Oregon University-owned building at 1388 Siskiyou Blvd. (Note: Combining aerial photos with survey maps can provide only an approximation of the actual lot line location.)

Sink said over the 22 years she has worked at Omar’s in Ashland, she has often felt frustrated and less than supported by the city. 

“It’s difficult to do things in the city of Ashland because of the rules and regulations and things. I understand those are the rules and ordinances but it doesn’t make it easy to run a business,” she said. 

Sink also looks at her 77-year-old business as more than a business. 

“She’s my family. I’ve been here over half my life. Part of what makes me so mad is I just want to make her pretty. … We’ve been there for a lot of people’s lives. For births, deaths, anniversaries, homecomings, proms, people have met people here. They’ve met their spouses here,” she said. 

The 2020 patio debacle with the city was resurrected earlier this year when Ashland City Councilor Dylan Bloom asked Sink if she was aware of the city’s beautification grants and if she would apply. Sink said she would not because of the patio imbroglio. Bloom asked her what it would take for her to seek funding to beautify Omar’s. 

Sink said she would only consider seeking the funding if the city could give her a signed written document attesting that Omar’s neon sign is safe without the additional process of becoming a registered historic landmark. 

When asked, Sink confirmed Omar’s restaurant is still on the market and for sale. She has received several offers but none were the “right fit.” Until she finds the right one, she said she won’t part with the business. 

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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