Friday, June 4, 2010

Wells Voters Face Decision on Lighted Electronic Sign Regulation

By Jim Kanak
Staff Columnist
For the second time in recent months, Wells’ voters face a ballot question rife with controversy. Question 18 on the June 8 ballot asks voters to weigh in on proposed amendments to the town code relative to the definition and permissibility of the lighted electronic signs that a half dozen businesses on Route 1 currently display.
Those in favor of the amendment (a ‘yes’ vote on Question 18) argue that the amendment is needed to regulate the size, brightness, frequency of message changing, and area of town where the signs can be permitted. Opponents of the amendment (a ‘no’ vote) argue that the signs in question are not permitted under the existing code and should not have been allowed, and that the amendment, in fact, would legitimize the signs in town code.
“The signs have been allowed and they aren’t going away,” said Town Planner Mike Huston. “The Code Office believes they are permitted and the Board of Selectmen has said they won’t go to court to eliminate (those that have been permitted).”
Former selectwoman Joan Mooney urges that the amendment be defeated. “How did (the signs) get approved in the first place if they weren’t in the ordinance?” she said. “A lot of us feel that we’re starting to look like Saugus (Mass.). We want to stop it now. They shouldn’t have issued the first one. I would rather that we revert to the current ordinance.”
The proposed amendment creates a definition in Chapter 145 of the town code for an “Electronic Message Center” that “either in whole or in part may be changed by means of electronic programming.” The amendment would also establish standards for such signs, including placing limits on their brightness, frequency of changing the message (not more than once every ten minutes), size (40 square feet with no side longer than ten feet), distance from the road (a minimum of 25 feet), area of town where they are permitted (the general business district only, primarily the Route 1 corridor), and limits them to one per lot.
Wells resident Linda Dumey, another opponent of the change, said the signs violate the town’s Comprehensive Plan guidelines. “They’re in opposition to the Comp Plan,” she said. “Things are supposed to be in a traditional Maine style. Changeable signs aren’t allowed. If there are six signs now and another one in the pipeline, there’s nothing we can do. It’s a horrifying prospect unless you like the Las Vegas or tacky beach town look.”
Currently, the town code permits internally illuminated signs, including neon signs, and prohibits animated signs. Selectman Jim Spiller says the distinction between the two has been lost on those who argue the signs are not now permitted by the code. “People have to understand that the statement that this type of sign has never been allowed is wrong,” he said. “We have always allowed illuminated signs. These aren’t animated signs. They automatically change. There’s a clear differentiation. That’s where people are misguided. We told (Mike’s Clam Shack) “no’ when he included animation (on his sign), so he stopped doing it.”
The town code currently includes a definition for “changeable copy sign “ as any sign that may be manually changed, but not automatically. Mooney argues that these are the only type of changeable signs permitted.
In regards to the prohibited animated signs, such signs are defined as those that “display movement or the optical illusion of movement of any part of its structure, design, or pictorial segment, including the movement of any illumination or the flashing or varying of light intensity, or the automatic changing of all or any part of the sign’s facing.”
Spiller’s comment aside, whether electronic signs are captured under the last part of that definition has remained part of the debate.
Both Spiller and Huston insist that the proposed amendment is the only way to truly regulate the location and control proliferation of the signs.
“If you don’t like these signs, pass this and limit the annoyance factor,” said Huston. “If the vote is ’no,’ we already know businesses on Route 9 and others will come in for these. And currently, the maximum sized sign allowed in the GBD is 150 square feet.”
Spiller said, “People should realize how important it is to pass this.”
Dumey offered a different analysis. “The proposed amendment doesn’t offer any protection at all,” she said. “We could end up with 200 more of these. If we permit them, we’ll be giving our blessing to them.”