Institution Ale's Ryan Smith and son Shaun Smith won the fight to keep their neon sign. | Credit: Paul Wellman

At a time when Santa Barbara’s downtown district is in desperate need of revival, the opening of Institution Ale at 516 State Street — a location that had been previously vacant for years — felt like a major win for the city worth celebrating. Two months after the brewery opened its doors, though, its owners were met with what they call a “damper on [their] excitement” from the city.

The owners, father Roger Smith and his sons, Shaun Smith and Ryan Smith, received a “harshly worded” letter in April from the city, telling them that their interior neon sign violated an ordinance that requires it to be set a minimum of 10 feet back from the front window. The letter threatened to charge them $100 a day until it’s removed. The family sought an exemption to keep their sign, and it was denied 2-1 by the Sign Committee on July 2.

“Our argument with the city has been to say, ‘Hey, it violates the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law,’” said Shaun Smith. “We have a unique set of circumstances that we believe grants an exception.” The sign, which Smith said has started to make a name for itself as a well-recognized landmark downtown, is not actually directed toward the front window but is visible to the street because of the all-glass storefront and half-windowed side. “The rule was put in place to keep downtown business signs from resembling flashy liquor store signs,” Smith said. “This is hardly the case with our sign.”

City Planner Renee Brooke said the ordinance was created after downtown businesses in 2010 and 2011 began using neon lighting and rope lighting to draw attention to storefronts. She said the City Council added the 10-foot rule because members felt that any neon sign within 10 feet of the front window appeared as showy as one placed directly on the window. She said that Institution Ale can next appeal the decision at the Historic Landmarks Commission. If it is rejected there, they can then take their appeal to the City Council.

“The 2-1 vote actually feels like a win to me,” Smith said. “An official told me after the meeting that the committee rarely grants exceptions … They are very set in their ways and proud of their rule. If they never actually grant exceptions it seems like it’s a committee that doesn’t really do its job.” Brooke explained that this was the first time the committee had ever had a business request an exemption to the neon ordinance. “They definitely have granted exceptions before,” Brooke said. “Usually the nature of the exceptions are for a font size bigger than allowed; I’m really not sure we’ve ever had an exception request specifically for neon.”

Although Smith referenced the “outpouring of support” his brewery has garnished since its sign battle drew media attention, not everyone sympathizes with their quest for an exception. Also brought up briefly at the July 2 meeting were some community members’ outrage at the brewery’s chosen mental-health theme for its drinks. Institution Ale derives its name from the original location’s close proximity to the former Camarillo State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that served developmentally disabled and mentally ill patients.

“Please do not provide special favors to a business that mocks the tragedy of mental illness,” wrote community member Virginia Rehling in a letter to the city. She pointed out that the brewery’s original location used photos of the hospital as a backdrop for its bar, and gave its beers names like “Restraint,” “RxPills,” and “Keys For Doors That Don’t Exist.” “I am so offended and upset that the city would consider giving this business special favors and exceptions from the normal rules,” Rehling said.

Shaun Smith said he and his brother and father plan to go before the Historic Landmarks Commission to continue the appeal process. The one vote in their favor at Tuesday’s Sign Committee meeting was from Michael Drury, a Historic Landmarks commissioner who was filling in as an alternate on the committee for an absent member. Drury voted in favor of granting an exception because he said the sign was “tasteful,” and he believes the city should support Institution Ale and businesses like it because of its ability to attract foot traffic to the 500 block of State Street, supporting the city’s goal to “revitalize downtown.”

If Drury’s vote was any indication of the way the rest of the Historic Landmarks Commission will vote, there may be hope for the brewery to keep its beloved sign.


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