Government Spotlight

Proposed sign ordinance raises caution flags

| Joanne Cole |

A comprehensive proposed town sign ordinance underwent a thorough review in a joint meeting Tuesday led by town planner Scott Hastings. Putting the draft under the microscope were members of the land management planning committee (LMPC) who prepared it, planning board members who will interpret and apply it, and the board of selectmen as principal policymakers. If the goal was to elicit multiple perspectives before any zoning change goes to voters, the session succeeded.

Three main concerns emerged: a proposed limit of 10 non-commercial signs per property, visible from the road; different standards for signs in the Shoreland and Resource Protection districts than elsewhere; and whether the new provisions should apply to the Pineland campus.

Enough questions arose to send the draft back to LMPC for refinement. A companion ordinance with minor housekeeping changes and corrections sailed forward.

At the outset of the January 5 meeting, town planner Hastings explained that an overhaul of the current sign ordinance, last updated in 2001, is needed to comply with U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting municipalities’ ability to regulate signs based on content. An ordinance permitting political signs to be larger than directional signs would be suspect, for example. “Content-neutral” restrictions—on size, number, lighting, location—remain legally permissible.

The new ordinance, Hastings said, tries for “as light a touch as possible.” No trespassing signs, hunting signs, and national and state flags are excluded from the definition of signs and thus don’t count against the limit of ten. The point of a limit, he explained, is to take into account the impact on neighboring properties, and a parallel state law sets ten as its maximum. Compared with other towns, “we’re permissive,” Hastings said; other towns allow fewer than ten signs per property.

The ordinance’s separate standards for signs in the Shoreland and Resource Protection zones also drew comment, with the possibility of neighboring properties being governed by different rules. Hastings explained that all shoreland provisions come from the state and any changes would require state clearance, a lengthy process. Rather than pursue that, LMPC instead sought to make provisions consistent for the zones that are under local control, he said.

As for Pineland, Paul Pietropaoli, general counsel and vice president of Libra Foundation, attended and expressed concerns over whether and how the new provisions would apply to Pineland. The ordinance would be difficult to apply, he said, because Pineland is “a unique property,” not simply in scale but with recreational, business, and agricultural uses and extensive internal on-campus signage.

Members agreed that Pietropaoli and Hastings should confer and draft clarifying language specific to Pineland, perhaps focusing on its frontage on Route 231 and Morse Road.

Other items caught committee members’ attention. Proposed restrictions on illuminated signs prompted a question about how to measure the light – and some side commentary about new security lights blazing at Town Hall. Another issue: how to distinguish between commercial and non-commercial signs. Hastings explained that the distinction was deliberately left open on advice of the town attorney because definitions could verge into impermissible regulation of content. What about signs for home businesses? Grandfathered was the answer for existing currently lawful signs, a simple permit for new ones.

One issue arched over the whole: should there be a formal avenue to seek exceptions to the new provisions, for example, to get permission from the planning board to have different sizes, locations, or numbers of signs? And if so, what standard should the planning board apply to evaluate those requests? Hastings thought the planning board could have broad discretion through the site plan review process and that anyone should be apply to apply. He’ll work on draft language to that effect.

The joint meeting wrapped up with plans for LMPC to reconvene to confer with Hastings and return with revisions. The goal remains to conclude drafting and review and a public hearing in time for voters’ consideration at town meeting.

Video of the January 5 joint meeting can be viewed here. The draft ordinance under discussion can be accessed here.

A sign on Morse Road welcomes visitors to Pineland Farms | photo: Joanne Cole