A Wood Village business owner fined $3,000 for street signs and outdoor mannequins says he was targeted because he runs the town's only marijuana dispensary.
Aaron Michelsen owns NW Compassion Medical Center, a recreational pot shop, and Fabulicious Cupcakes, both located in the same building near the corner of Northeast 238th Drive and Halsey Street in Wood Village.
Records dated Monday, July 3, show NW Compassion was fined $1,000 each for two lifelike street mannequins dressed as ladies. Adorned in long hair and clothing marked with pot leaves, the dummies wave signs reading "Got Chronic" when plugged in.
A roof-mounted sign for the cupcake shop also was cited for $1,000.
"It's a horrible feeling as a business owner — that the city that you're in doesn't stand behind you," Michelsen said. "I have the right to be here just like any other business."
A newly-revised sign code approved by Wood Village City Hall in May doesn't use the word mannequin, but it does ban "portable signs" in most zones, with exceptions for garage sales, real estate and political campaigns, as well as A-frame boards and inflatable signs.
That means mannequins aren't permitted, though Michelsen could apply for a new permit for an awning-level sign structure for his cupcake shop, according to a letter sent by Code Compliance's DeAnn Riggs in June.
"In Wood Village, you're not free to promote yourself, which means you're not free to run your own business," Michelsen argues. "When something is erected prior to new ordinances, they usually grandfather it in."
Wood Village officials strongly deny all allegations of discrimination, noting that Michelsen was warned prior to receiving the citation and had known the sign code was changing for more than a year.
In email exchanges shared with The Outlook, the city describes itself as "very pro-business."
"That code is being uniformly applied regardless of the business type," Wood Village City Manager Bill Peterson followed up in a phone interview. "We are not singling out any business type.
"Mr. Michelsen may perceive that he has been singled out, and I can't change his perception," Peterson continued.
Michelsen, a 39-year-old Gresham resident, said he's had a bullseye on his back since he officially opened the city's only medical cannabis retailer in 2015. The site transitioned to recreational sales as well in 2016.
Since opening, Michelsen and Code Compliance have tangled over his cement pavers, gravel bedding and the palm trees in NW Compassion's back patio. The single father of two says the store's wood-and-metal gazebo required a permit, while the water heater shop next door needed no paperwork for their large metal sheds.
Michelsen paid a $1,000 fine for operating the dispensary without a land-use permit in 2015, but was reimbursed after beating the charges in court. And when he purchased Fabulicious Cupcakes near the end of 2014, Michelsen says Multnomah County Sheriff's deputies warned him they'd be stopping by often.
To Michelsen, it's a pattern of retaliatory treatment. He says the behavior of one city employee highlights the mood at City Hall.
"Pot and cupcakes might mix for some (insert pun here) but not for me. Terrible business practice," utility worker Randy Lauer wrote in a one-star review posted in February2015.
Lauer was elected as a city councilor in Troutdale in late 2016. He's often cast himself as an opponent of recreational cannabis, and has posted less-than-flattering comments about NW Compassion on several occasions.
Peterson, the city manager, says he's powerless to limit an employee's free speech except when it directly relates to the performance of assigned tasks. In an email to the city, Michelsen described the comments as "harassment and slander."
Councilor Lauer is currently on vacation in the mountains of Utah, where cell reception is spotty. He was briefed on the matter before publication, but was unavailable for immediate comment.
Michelsen employs about 12 through his various business concerns, which also include Viking Heating & Mechanical, an HVAC company. He wishes Wood Village could become an unincorporated community like his hometown, Damascus.
"I'm a single father with two kids full time, full custody. I have to work hard," he declared. "I'm going to fight until this gets worked out and resolved."