THE SIGN AT LOUIS PIZZA, lit by light-emitting diodes, in the Wolfeboro Shopping Center was found to be grandfathered and was on last Tuesday evening. Landlord Paul Zimmerman thinks plaza businesses like this need illuminated signs. (Thomas Beeler photo) (click for larger version)
October 03, 2013The OPEN signs are still on at Anthony's Pizza and Louis Pizza in Wolfeboro, but only after landlord Paul Zimmerman was able to convince Code Enforcement Officer Audrey Cline that they were grandfathered.
Convincing Cline took far too much time and effort, according to Zimmerman, and, beyond complaining about it, he is now approaching the planning board to get the underlying ordinance changed.
At issue is a March 1997 sign ordinance change that, in Section 175-44: D states:
"(1) Signs may be illuminated only by exterior light sources. The light sources shall be placed so that they will not constitute a hazard to street or highway driving by glare or create a negative impact on abutting properties.
"(2) No flashing or animated signs or signs with visible moving parts or intermittent lighting to create the visual effect of movement shall be permitted.
"(3) No neon signs shall be permitted."
In all, Cline sent out notices of violation to 18 businesses with illuminated signs on June 30.
In her letter to Anthony's Pizza she stated, "Your business is one of the several that has been identified as using a lighted sign or display that is not permitted in the code. It should be noted that internally illuminated signs have not be permitted since March of 1997. Unless a sign was in use prior to 1997, or has an approval to be internally illuminated, it does not qualify as a 'grandfathered' sign."
Zimmerman responded to the Cline letter on Aug. 19, "Please be advised this red neon sign was purchased and installed by Ted Vathally in 1988 when he opened his Sub & Pizza business." Zimmerman enclosed with his response an inkjet printout of an appraisal done in 1988 by AER which included a photo of the pizza shop with the OPEN sign. This reporter saw a copy of the printout, which was a little dark, but the red neon sign in the window could be made out.
Cline responded on Aug. 26 saying she could not identify the sign in the window "due to poor copy quality" and asking to see the original photograph. Alternatively she offered to stop by and see if she could find the date of manufacture on the sign itself.
Zimmerman subsequently delivered a 1996 photo of the sign and on Sept. 3 formally rejected Cline's offer to inspect the sign itself for a date of manufacture. "This clearly is a very intrusive offer, and it is clear you are attempting to censor and control what a private shop keeper does within the footprint of his store." He cited the backlit awning at Spectrum Photo and the new canopy at the Irving gas station that "has a red neon ribbon light going around the entire structure (about 150 feet) and the Irving logo actually has neon over and under the name."
He also acknowledged on Sept. 3 that Larry Kitsios of Louis Pizza was also cited by Cline for a violation, even though his sign is not neon but lighted by light-emitting diodes (LED). "Are you also banning LED lighting?" he asked, along with requesting "a list of anyone else on my property you have sent letters to."
Kitsios had earlier stated for a Sept. 5 article in this paper that "I have had a sign there since I bought the business," well before the law changed.
On Sept. 23 Cline responded that the grandfathered status of the Anthony's Pizza lost was lost when Vathaly sold his business to Geary Ciccarone, claiming that the sign was not in the window while Ciccarone owned the business.
Zimmerman responded by email on Sept. 26, attaching a copy of a letter from Ciccarone that stated, "During our six-year tenure as owner-operators of Ciccarone's Pizza, we had a lit neon sign displayed in the front window of the restaurant facing the parking lot. We were without the sign for a –period of several week, after it was accidentally broken by the hired window washer. We acquired a new sign and displayed it in the same location as the old one. That sign was chattel incorporated in the sale of Ciccarone's Pizza to Mark Lavoie, DBA Anthony's Pizza."
On Sept. 27, Rob Houseman, Director of Planning and Development and Cline's supervisor emailed Zimmerman to state, "Please be advised that the Code Enforcement Office received information late yesterday regarding the signs grandfathering status. Given this information Ms Cline has determined the open signs to be grandfathered and will be placing a letter to the file documenting this conclusion."
Level playing field
While pleased that two of his tenants were allowed to keep their OPEN signs in the end, Zimmerman is not letting the sign issue drop. On Sept. 26 he wrote to the planning board, asking it to review the signage requirements for shopping centers or plazas like his (Clarke Plaza, where Anthony's Pizza is located, and the Wolfeboro Shopping Center across Center Street, where Louis Pizza is located).
In his email to the planning board he noted that while 18 businesses were cited for internally illuminated signs, Cline "missed at least 10 others who also had the same type of signs." This oversight, he claimed, made the business playing field uneven.
Zimmerman argued that in places like plazas where businesses do not front on a road, OPEN signs allow passers by to know whether or not a business is open for business, even if the windows are fogged. Businesses located downtown are right on the street and don't have the same problem.
"Ironically both State and Federal agencies are exempt from local municipal regulation, and since I have a post office at one end and a State Liquor store at the other, both could put up big internally illuminated signs." This would also be unfair to other businesses.
In conclusion Zimmerman noted he was told that he could appeal the code enforcement decisions to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, but since he believes the underlying regulation is unreasonable, "it should not be necessary to have to go to the ZBA for relief from regulations that are wrong to start with."
As of the time of this writing, the Wolfeboro planning board was scheduled to meet on Tuesday evening, Oct. 1, and on the agenda was a work session item for "Sign illumination."