By JENNIFER NETHERBY Staff Reporter Drive down Ventura Boulevard and for the most part you won’t find merchandise for sale outside stores, or sidewalk signs beckoning passersby to check out the latest sales inside. That’s because after an 18-month moratorium on a city ordinance barring signs and merchandise from sidewalks, city inspectors are back writing citations that carry fines of nearly $200. “We just started enforcing it again,” said Ron Berenson, acting senior street use inspector with the city Public Works Department. “We withheld enforcement on signs (until the city code was revised) because we didn’t want to stir the pot.” The city halted enforcement of its sidewalk display ordinance after a city inspector, responding to complaints from residents, went on a citation-writing spree on the boulevard in Sherman Oaks, issuing 160 tickets in one week. Outraged merchants complained to the City Council, arguing that the law was ambiguous, and costly to comply with. In some cases, merchants were cited for sprucing up their storefronts with plants and benches. Now after a lengthy, some would say plodding review, the city has unveiled a revised permitting process to make it easier and cheaper for businesses to get a permit to offer outside dining or put plants or benches outside storefronts. Under the changes, the one-time fee for an outside dining permit dropped from $1,000 to $500. There is no fee for placing a planter outside a shop, but the owner must prove to the city that they have liability insurance in case an injury results. But David Mills, owner of Chimayo Trading Co. on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, said the city is still nitpicking as it resumes enforcement of the law. Mills was cited by inspectors last month for having two flower planters and a statue in front of his shop. “This is so subtle. There’s 13 feet of sidewalk for someone to walk on,” he said. “You could drive a bus between the fire hydrant and the planters.” He said the items are meant to let drivers know the store is open, since there is little foot traffic in his area. Although he could get a permit, he said the process is too costly and arcane. Mill also complained that the city did a poor job of informing merchants about changes in the permitting process after it resumed enforcement three months ago. Staff members of Councilman Mike Feuer, who worked to clarify the laws and encourage businesses to get the necessary permits, said some merchants still think the city is being too tough. “We’re hearing a lot of things from business owners,” said Sharon Mayer, Feuer’s deputy. “We’re hearing the city needs to stay out of it.” But Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, a 2,700-member organization that lobbied against allowing sidewalk signs and merchandise, said he is happy with the stepped-up enforcement. “We in the Valley do not want to turn the streets of the Valley into an outdoor swap meet,” Close said. “I’m sure some will grumble. They got away with something illegal for a long time.” Along with being illegal, Close said the signs and merchandise are unsafe and represent a nuisance for pedestrians. He said that during the enforcement break, shops were selling books, clothes, furniture and just about anything else on the street. But shop owners along the boulevard contend that having a sidewalk presence is an essential part of doing business. “Many merchants feel that with the speed of traffic on Ventura, that the signs on their buildings are not sufficient to attract attention,” said Sondra Frohlich, executive director of the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce. “It’s up to the businessman if he wants to worry about a fine It’s one of those things where the city has erratic enforcement and the guy who doesn’t have (a sign) out wants to be equal with the guy who does have it out.” The citation process is complaint-driven, but inspectors often discover other businesses in violation while responding to a single complaint. The first violation is a warning. After that, citations are issued and businesses can be fined $194. Berenson said repeat violators are sometimes referred to the City Attorney’s Office for prosecution. That is rare, though. “Usually after they’re hit with the fine they get pretty compliant,” he said.