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Restaurant owner claims town sign enforcement is selective

Town takes Fabricant to court over violation

MICHELLE FABRICANT, owner of Downtown Market Grille on Railroad Avenue, stands by her sign on the corner of Railroad Avenue and South Main Street directing customers to her restaurant for breakfast and lunch. She has been cited for being in violation of Wolfeboro’s sign ordinance but refuses to remove it. (Elissa Paquette photo) (click for larger version)
August 05, 2010
WOLFEBORO — Michelle Fabricant, owner of the Downtown Market Grille on Railroad Avenue in Wolfeboro has been cited by the town a second time for setting a bright yellow A-frame sign at the corner of South Main Street and Railroad Avenue. Wolfeboro Codes Officer Audrey Cline warned Fabricant of the possible imposition of fines up to $550 a day for failure to comply after her written notice, but Fabricant refuses to budge.

Instead, she's plastering her citations to the windows of her eatery that fronts both Central and Railroad Avenues. She also appeared before the Wolfeboro Board of Selectmen during the Public Comment section of their meeting on July 21, complaining of a "pattern of discrimination" by Cline and stating that there are 24 or 25 similar signs at other businesses that are visible every day.

"I tripled my Sunday business by having that sign there," she says, and with a 90 day season in which to keep her business alive year around, she feels it's a necessity. After being at her present location for five years, she says she still has locals who come in for the first time and ask, "How long have you been here?"

"I had someone come in the other day to eat breakfast who said, 'Your breakfasts are really good. Have you considered putting a sign out front on the sidewalk?'"

Fabricant suggests the town put a moratorium on sign ordinance enforcement until summer is over and merchants can get together and discuss the matter, because she doesn't think it makes sense. "What is the town's intent?" she asks.

In her case, she also feels that she has been unfairly singled out. She says she doesn't know of anyone else who's been cited, with the exception of Dockside Restaurant. The occupants were asked to remove their ice cream banner, and they obliged.

A walk along Wolfeboro's downtown streets shows numerous A-frame signs and a product brand banner. Inquiries reveal that business people who have a sign out front aren't quite sure what the ordinance is and guess that maybe it's okay on private property.

Yet that's not what the ordinance says.

Cline wrote a letter dated July 18, 2008, to the Wolfeboro Area Chamber of Commerce explaining, "A-frame or freestanding signs are not permitted under Wolfeboro's ordinances in any manner or any location…Additionally, 'banner'signs and signs displaying manufacturers' names or logos are not permissible." Cline asked that the ordinance be shared with "all interested parties."

Planning Board Chairman Kathy Barnard says she welcomes feedback from the merchants and noted that the next work session is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 17, at 7 p.m. at the Wolfeboro Public Library. Call the Planning Department in advance to get on the agenda.

Merchants interviewed by the Granite State News are adamant that those signs, in addition to their large signs, help bring people into their establishments. They complain of the struggle to catch the attention of the public and talk of traffic flow and foot traffic. A common theme is that Wolfeboro should be colorful just as other summer tourist towns are.

According to the sign ordinance, directional signs posted on corners are to be a particular size and painted with black letters on a white background. It's rare to see that rule followed, and again, the issue is raised of whether that is the best idea for businesses that spend a lot of money developing an image with a prevailing color scheme for customer recognition.

Fabricant does not claim that she has been improperly cited for having her bright yellow sign announcing that she offers breakfast and lunch – she says she just wants "fair and equal treatment."

Wolfeboro Planning Director Rob Houseman says that the department has written more than 100 citations for sign ordinance violations in the last several years. A part-time zoning enforcement position was approved in the budget but has not yet been filled, so Cline's services have been stretched. He said that enforcement is prioritized and the most egregious violations are most likely to be addressed. Fabricant's sign, situated off premises on a busy corner, raised safety concerns. "Imagine what it would be like," he says, " if every business down the side streets put a sign out on Main Street."

The directional signposts in town, placed in response to the desire of merchants off Main Street to encourage business, were placed with input from public works regarding sight lines and heights that would not interfere with sidewalk maintenance and plowing. As for the requirement that they be white with black lettering, Houseman said the planning board was looking for consistency. He is aware of the issues raised in regard to color scheme as part of the expensive branding process.

Development of the sign ordinance included sitting down with the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, and Houseman says he's seen the e-mails that Executive Director Mary DeVries has sent out to members, but apparently, there are more issues that could be explored further.

On Monday, Aug. 2, Fabricant sent an e-mail to members of the Wolfeboro Board of Selectmen stating, "Ossipee District Court just hand-delivered to me a land use citation in which I am to appear in Court on August 26, 2010 regarding my portable A-frame sign, and the civil penalty is up to $6,750 and climbing! I am stating again for the record that according to a letter from Audrey Cline dated July 18, 2008, in which I was first cited, that portable signs are not permitted under Wolfeboro's ordinances, in any manner or location. I am being singled out among all the other portable signs that are visible in Wolfeboro from the town library on South Main all the way to Back Bay Rehab on Mill/Varney." Fabricant then repeated her claim that her restaurant has been subject to "blatant discrimination" by the code enforcement officer.

Selectmen have yet to respond to Fabricant's July 21 complaint, let alone this e-mail, but the board meets Wednesday evening, Aug. 4, after this newspaper has gone to press, Any further developments will be reported next week.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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