Portage drive-in spurs heated discussion

PORTAGE – Despite a tense hourlong meeting, which almost escalated into fisticuffs between two residents, township supervisors said they believe progress was made in the debate over the Portage Bar-Ann Drive-In sign.

A disagreement between the drive-in theater’s owners and supervisors began last month, when supervisors sent a letter telling theater management to remove a longstanding sign along Cyran Alley in the center of a township right of way.

Managers said the sign is necessary to guide patrons toward the theater in the dark. Supervisors said the sign is a driving hazard and a township liability.

When management refused to remove the sign, saying that it would kill their business, supervisors, acting on the advice of their solicitor, Calvin Webb, filed an injunction to force them to remove it.

A preliminary hearing is set for Jan. 24, but a group of about 50 residents refused to wait for court action and packed a board room, overflowing into the hallway, for the township’s Monday evening meeting.

Supervisor Richard Olshavsky tried to quell the crowd, telling residents that supervisors “had no choice but to file the action” against the drive-in, and that the issue was one of public safety, but he was confronted by many who said they didn’t understand the problem.

Theater Manager Dustin Grush presented supervisors with an online petition, signed by more than 3,000 people, as well as pages of signatures gathered at area businesses, urging the township to withdraw the lawsuit.

Grush asked how the business’ 20,000 summer patrons could drive around the sign nightly without issue, and still have the sign be considered a nuisance.

He asked whether Olshavsky could provide accident records or insurance statements to prove the number of accidents because of the sign.

He also asked whether any local fire company or emergency service organization had contacted the township to ask that the sign be declared an obstruction.

He was joined by several residents who expressed disbelief over the alleged number of accidents, including Robert Gaunt, who said he lives across from where the sign stands.

Gaunt said there’s been perhaps one accident in the last decade, which was due to speeding.

“I haven’t seen any [accidents],” he said.

Other neighbors agreed, saying they were unaware of any accidents or danger stemming from the sign’s location.

While many spoke up to decry the complaints as nothing more than a longheld vendetta against the theater and its owners, Olshavsky said the reason for the complaints didn’t matter, nor did the number of accidents.

“I’m not going to sit here and say who can and cannot drive around signs,” Olshavsky said. “It is [a nuisance]. It just is.”

He said complaints about the sign were brought to supervisors by township residents. At that point, supervisors had to investigate, he said.

“You can’t just throw it under the rug,” he said.

And Olshavsky wasn’t alone in his defense of the lawsuit. Resident Bill Offman, one of the men who brought the original complaint to the supervisors, said the sign and even the theater itself is a nuisance.

“As far as I’m concerned, you people don’t know nothing. Nothing at all,” he said toward the end of the meeting.

Offman said the road is “taken over” by the sign, and the road is filled with signs, poles and potholes, too.

“And we hit them all,” he said.

Offman said while his main concern is the sign itself, there are other problems related to the theater.

“They’re noisy, they’re dirty, they throw their junk out and it blows all over the yard … they’re like pigs in there,” he said.

Grush and other residents said they were looking for compromise, and there should be solutions other than removing the sign.

Several options, like selling the land to the theater’s owners, wouldn’t work, Olshavsky said, as it would require the land to be put out for bid at a public auction. And if the township would decide to abandon the property, it would revert to its original owner.

Incoming supervisor Bill Cooper, who also was elected chairman Monday evening, said people are obviously passionate about the theater, and said supervisors, theater management and attorneys on both sides are going to sit down to see whether there is a possible solution that wouldn’t require the sign to come down.

Olshavsky told Grush the township’s liability policy wouldn’t provide enough money to cover the sign, and that the township would not purchase more insurance. So, Grush presented the theater’s insurance policy.

Grush said it doesn’t list the sign specifically under coverage, but it also doesn’t list the theater’s movie screen, which also is covered by insurance.

If the screen fell, the theater’s policy would cover it. The same goes for the sign, he said.

“That would cover any sort of liability on the property,” he said. “Did it ever come to mind that this could be a way to deal with the issue?”

Olshavsky said he doubted whether insurance would be enough to eliminate township liability but said he and Cooper would sit down with Grush and others to try and work something out.

Resident Deb Shope said compromise from both parties is necessary, and that keeping the theater open is in everyone’s best interests.

“Portage needs the drive-in. … Portage cannot afford to lose the drive-in,” she said, and was greeted with applause from around the room.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.