Monday, December 20, 2010
The Signs, They Are A Changin'
So, believe it or not, I had a friend say to me, "you seem like such a nice, laid back guy. Why do you turn into a Sign Nazi when you see signs around town?" That is a good question.
I think there are two reasons, at least, the first is that I place a high value on respect. We have rules and regulations and I find it disrespectful when people choose not to follow the rules (speaking of being conservative have I written yet about attending Oliver North's birthday party in 1993? - true story). The second reason has to do with community character. We have worked hard, I think, with the public, planning board and business community to review our sign regulations to ensure that they are flexible and encourage getting businesses message out, but at the same time helping to reinforce the character this community wants to have.
Truth be told, I much prefer the proactive regulation review and rewrite to the regulatory side of municipal planning, however both are parts of the whole job. So, the Zoning Administer and I drive around town collecting illegal signs, quarterly. Most are the type that get planted into the ground with metal legs. In addition we tackle the ones on utility poles (a rake is a very versatile tool). This past time (November 14th) we picked up 73 signs. This was after we drafted a press release and had information on Channel 22 etc.
After the purge we sent letters to the companies associated with the signs asking them to pick their signs up and pay a fine. One company accused us of planting the signs and going into other communities, and a second company said they'd be right over to pay, and we haven't seen them. Bottom line, apparently the signs are cheap enough that the owners don't care if we collect and toss them (we keep them for 30 days).
So why are the stake signs or utility pole signs illegal? Well, we are very clear in our ordinance about two things: we do not allow off site advertising (this is when the sign is not placed on the lot for which it represents), and we don't allow signs within the Right of Way (including on utility poles). This is mainly for safety reasons, we don't want to have pedestrian and vehicular travel impaired because people are distracted by signs.
I think an overarching reason we look at sign regulations though comes back to the community character concern. In interviewing residents, and the Planning Board, I think it is clear that Dover has a look and feel that we are trying to achieve. It is based upon the mill setting that we have, but I think it is more than that. It recognizes change and evolution, but at the same time it is sensitive to our surroundings. Much of this character is established by the "built environment," roads and buildings, which is why setbacks, massing and height are so important, but I think signs and other appenditures reinforce that character, which is why it is important to be aware of the signs out there.
Thinking about the options, one is hard pressed not to mention Route 1 in Saugus, Mass. Along that stretch of road there is a very cohesive feel which can be described as thoroughfare business. One is not going to mistake the commercial feel and glitz. Is it Times Square or the Vegas Strip? Nope, but at the same time it represents a more commercial and highway feel than Doverites (?) want.
I think we acknowledge the residential nature of the community and the historic downtown we have. Unlike a strip commercial district we have a concentrated downtown that has corridors leading into it with large homes and a more classic restraint to it. True we do have upper Central Avenue/lower New Rochester Road which does have a strip tone to it. What distinguishes that from a Route 1 is that it is a 5 lane roadway, as opposed to a divided highway. Also, next time you drive that area, look at the homes that still exist on Central Avenue. There are still residences mixed in with the commercial pods.
Part of this character argument is that we see these signs at different stages of existence. Day one they are bright and clear and usually clean. Soon after they get grimy with road waste, especially in the winter with snow and salt. Finally, it has been months on the side of the road or on the utility pole, and suddenly the signs look grungy and affected by the elements. They make the City look dirty and un-kept. My experience is that this grungy and un-kept impression isn't placed on the owner of the sign, but on the community as a whole. I think this is why the community has decided that it doesn't want to allow them.
Drive through town and think about your impressions. Do you have a positive one about fresh, clean and maintained areas and a negative one about the areas that don't shine as well? I bet you do. Next time you drive by and see a sign think of it in that frame of reference.
One last comment, I often wonder how effective the stake and pole signs are? Do you drive by a sign see it, and think that's a product or service I want to use (as you swerve to not hit the car in front of you as you were distracted from the road). I am interested so, let me know.
Next week, I'll discuss the difference between regulations and freedom of speech in regards to signs - the perfect holiday blog post (don't you think?).