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Wolfeboro planning board hears from merchants on sign ordinance

Extending the current enforcement moratorium is up to selectmen

September 16, 2010
WOLFEBORO — A revised moratorium on portable sign enforcement until Oct. 31 is now in place following the Wolfeboro Board of Selectmen's Sept. 1 meeting, but local business owners who expressed a wish to extend it, perhaps until Dec. 31, were told to take the matter up with the planning board.

At the planning board's Sept. 7 meeting, Barbara Bridges of Bridges Hallmark Shop on North Main Street, encouraged that extension, saying, "I can't stress enough the importance of these signs to businesses."

Taking that a step further, Jerome Holden of J.C.Signs said that he thinks A frame signs should be allowed generally, and that he would like to see a hold on enforcement until March of 2011 to allow time for the board to consider changes to the ordinance and time for residents to vote on any proposed modifications.

Holden also brought up three other issues. He would like to change the setback from the current 75 feet to a business's property line for greater visibility for cars traveling by, a change in the amount of time allowed to display event banner from the 14 currently allowed to 21 days – as was allowed in the past – and a change in the permissible banner size.

Chris Ahlgren, owner of Jo Green's Garden Café, which fronts both South Main Street and Dockside, added to the conversation on signs, with a request that a business be allowed a minimum size that would not need a permit. He also said that he would like to be able to put a seasonal banner on "my own building, on my own property" when his cafe reopens in the spring. At present, nonprofits are allowed to have banners and Ahlgren said he would like to see "equity" for businesses…the current ordinance is onerous to me."

In the matter of the moratorium on enforcement of portable signs, Planning Board member Jennifer Haskell questioned who said that the planning board has the authority to make that decision and expressed concern that to do so would overstep its bounds. No one disagreed.

The selectmen's liason to the board, Chuck Storm, whose previous statement to the Board of Selectmen that the planning board wanted a moratorium on enforcement created controversy following a letter of clarification from Planning Board Chairman Kathy Barnard that no vote had been taken, said that enforcement of the sign ordinance was "like stamping out dandelions. You get rid of some and more sprout in their place." He added that "the enforcement was uneven. We need clarity to be fair."

Board Member Chris Franson said that she was concerned about liability issues with signs on sidewalks. She also stated that she would prefer no portable signs. Storm replied that whoever puts up the sign would be first in line to be sued, rather than the town, and said that he knows of very few claims. Member Richard O'Donnell asked rhetorically, "If we allowed every business to have a [portable] sign, what would we have?"

At that point, Town Planner Rob Houseman stepped in with the suggestion that it would be helpful to have a workshop with participation from the merchants. He pointed out that the planning board is responsible for zoning regulations, which require all signs to be placed on the property of the business, but if "you're talking about the public right of way, then [the responsibility] falls to the Board of Selectmen."

He suggested reviewing the scope of the planning board's authority, a review of zoning ordinances, noting that some are flexible, and raised the question of what the community wants the town to look like. "It may not be a unified voice," he warned.

One way to address merchants' concerns, said Houseman, would be to dust off the professional study completed in connection with the Master Plan in which merchants expressed the need for better directional information. Implementation of the plan, which would create an interconnecting system of public information, including a kiosk in the town dock area, was pegged at $54,000 in 2004 dollars, according to Houseman.

The plan did not make it through the budget gauntlet in the past, but in light of the resurgence of concern among businessmen in town, he suggested it would be a good time to resurrect it. "The package had a lot of merit," said Houseman. "It wasn't done in a vacuum."

The planning board supported that idea, based on public concern, and also agreed with Houseman's suggestion that he meet with Public Works Director David Ford to talk about the possibility of including the way-finding project in the public works budget.

In closing, Barnard noted that the Wolfeboro Area Chamber of Commerce has scheduled a meeting with merchants on Tuesday, Sept. 28, and said that before the planning board contemplates changes in the sign ordinance, members will listen to their suggestions.

As for the request to extend the moratorium, that ball is back in the selectmen's court. She reiterated, "We don't have the authority to extend the moratorium. That goes to the selectmen."

[Editor's Note: The Chamber of Commerce meeting on the sign ordinance has been set for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 28 at the Wolfeboro Inn.]

Martin Lord & Osman
Martin Lord Osman
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