Following a public hearing on the issue, the Planning Board voted 3-1 on Tuesday night to recommend removing two of the three warrant articles pertaining to sign bylaws in town that had been proposed.
Bylaws that would change language governing signage in town as it relates to nonprofits and real estate postings will be removed, should the Board of Selectmen honor the Planning Board's recommendations.
Ultimately, the Board of Selectmen approve, or remove, warrant articles for Town Meeting, and would have to honor the Planning Board's recommendations before its next meeting when the warrant articles are approved.
Last month, three changes to the sign bylaws had been proposed after discussion among the Planning Board and the engineering deparment: one would alter the laws surrounding signs posted by noncommercial entities; another would revise and further restrict "open house" signs posted by real estate agents; and the third would push stricter regulations on temporary signs primarily used by businesses.
In a memo sent by the Board of Selectmen with recommendations to the Planning Board, it urged changes to the nonprofit/noncommercial changes that would align rules closer to those enforced on commercial entities, such as size of sign, time constraints and where the signs could be placed. Since the changes were not included in the public hearing post, town counsel recommended to revert back to its previous recommendation: the bylaw is "ok as it is." The bylaw would be stuck from the warrant.
There were no members of the Board of Selectmen in attendance at the public hearing.
The second article up for amendment concerned "open house" signs used by real estate agents to direct potential buyers to houses in town. As the bylaw stands, these signs can be posted on the property other than the property for sale, if not in the town's right of ways, if they are removed within a 24-hour period. The Board of Selectmen suggested adding language that would prohibit this, rather allowing the signs only on the property it is advertising.
"I think that open house signs are very temporary and I've never seen them stay up very long," said resident Fran Bakstran, who presently sits on the ZBA. "I happen to live on a street where you'd find it, but many, you wouldn't even find their driveway if you didn't have a sign at the intersection."
Audience members who spoke about the real estate signs echoed Bakstran's opinion, as did Rick Leif, Planning Board Chairman.
"I think these open house signs benefit the town," said Leif. "I think we should at least bring it to town meeting."
The Planning Board recommended the real estate sign bylaw go forward to Town Meeting.
Most of the concern swirls around issues with the section on "temporary signs" in the town's bylaw. It is one of the driving factors that prompted the initial discussion to re-examine the bylaws. Some residents in town have complained of the "uglification" of Northborough, and complain that too many sandwich board type signs "litter" the streets, particularly along the main corridor. Business owners argue that being allowed to place these signs out is directly related to their success.
The public hearing drew many business owners, who criticized the town for not being sympathetic to their struggles. As the temporary bylaw stands, businesses are allowed, with a permit, a no larger than 15 square foot temporary sign, that can be used 45 days within a year, and on the business's property.
Sue LaDue, owner of the Doggie Den, which sits behind the former Town Hall on Blake Street with a handful of other businesses, has been outspoken about the issue, and offered many comments at the hearing.
"I don't want to be combative," said LaDue, "but you're setting up the town for a silly situation. It'll be just as it's been; if the town feels like coming down on you, they do, and if they don't they don't. I plead with you to understand what it is like to run a business. I understand that people are upset about the signs. I don't want them to look ugly. Mine will always be attractive and culturally appropriate."
Susan Whitney, who also owns The Exchange Boutique on Blake Street, said that without temporary signs out by the road, it is nearly impossible to know her business is there. Set behind Sawyer's Bowladrome, she said she was asked to remove the sign by former Building Inspector Bill Farnsworth last year.
"So many customers said they wouldn't have known I was here otherwise," said Whitney. "I hear it all the time. So what can I do? I can't put a temporary sign out because it's not my land. Basically, one of the selectman said, 'Well, you chose that location.' I was appalled at that comment. So in other words, if you're on Blake Street and you can't be seen, maybe you shouldn't be there?"
Town Planner Kathy Joubert added that she has suggested on a number of occasions that businesses on Blake Street may want to consider working with the town to apply for a variance to get a directory style sign that sits out on Main Street.
Brian Russell, who owns Northboro Computers, said, "The main thing that brought this to a head is all the contruction. That's when people felt the need to put the signs out. Blake Street was once a dead end and it wasn't cut off. We should really allow these folks some grandfathering rights."
Russell also questioned the handling of signs on Otis Street during Walmart construction last year, when businesses were allowed to put electronic signs out to help traffic direct them.
Joubert pointed to the fact that Otis Street was a town project, whereas the Downtown Improvement Project is state directed. "It's no excuse, and in retrospect, we could have done more," she said.
"When you start seeing an abuse," said Joubert, "that's when you discuss if a regulation is needed. And more and more people are putting signs on their property. We are receiving way too many complaints. These temporary signs seem to multiply on the properties."
George Pember, Planning Board member, voted against the rest of the board, wanting to continue with the changes and updates.
"I am sympathetic to the business owners," said Pember, "and I appreciate that you'd like increased days and increased locations, but I'm also sympathetic to the vast majority who aren't here who are bitching and moaning and concerned about junky sign after junky sign. They have just as much of a right to be heard as the business owners."
With three in favor recommending the town article not go to Town Meeting, Leif added, "Our opinion is that this needs more work, so it's the best idea not to put it on the warrant, but also with the agreement that this isn't a dead issue forever. I'm wondering if this makes more sense not to bring this before the town this year, but that we spend some time and meet with the business owners and work as a group. I think there are valid concerns, but we shouldn't do something just to do something."