Signs, Signs ... Are There Too Many Signs in Northborough? [Poll]

The Board of Selectmen, inspired by a multitude of complaints from the public, is asking for some attention to be paid to the bylaws regarding signage in Northborough.

Earlier this year, Northborough Patch blogger Ron Goodenow discussed on a variety of occasions what he calls the accomplished photographer, he had his camera in tow and captured throughout the town what he considers to be a clutter of signs. Just too many signs.

"What I don't understand is why there seems to be absolutely no enforcement of signage regulations," wrote Goodenow. "Often, it is difficult to see out of driveways. There is only so much we can expect from a scar like Route 20, but what is so obvious is a total lack of imagination, concern for aesthetics and, sadly, enforcement. Anybody in charge?"

The Board of Selectmen has begun to ask the same question. Spurred by numerous complaints from residents, board member Jeff Amberson posed an agenda item asking Building Inspector Bill Farnsworth for an update on sign rules, regulations and enforcement.

"Over the last three or four months we have had more than several complaints about how it looks in town, with all the sandwich boards and all the smaller temporary signs," said Amberson. "I wasn’t clear on the rules, and I do have to agree—I think it’s starting to look like Coney Island out there in places. It looks tacky as hell in a lot of places."

"Signs are always an issue in this town as well as other towns across the country," said Farnsworth.

The bylaw governing signage in town hasn't changed since 2009, when it was voted upon at town meeting.

These zoning bylaws on signs are extensive, and are broken into variations that pertain to industrial districts, businesses districts and residential districts.

"Part of the problem that always comes up is the interpretation of what is allowed and what isn’t," said Farnsworth.

Farnsworth explained that many signs, such as pricing for gas stations, construction signs, real estate signs and political signs, are protected by state or federal law, and out of the town's jurisdiction to enforce.

Signs posted by nonprofits, too, such as church dinners or a car wash by a local boy scout group, for instance, are also permitted. Farnsworth said if he gets a call questioning if a sign is a hazard, he will investigate.

Since visibility from the road for some businesses is limited, some argue that the town has become overrun with sandwich board signs advertising by the road, such as those clustered at Northborough Plaza or in front of the old town hall.

"They feel they don’t get enough visibility, especially now with all the construction," said Farnsworth. "With businesses that are off the road, it does create a problem for some of those in plazas. And if one puts one up, then the other ones do, and there are 20 of ‘em and you can’t read any of ‘em. I have always said that you can oversign as well as not much not enough; too many can look like a circus."

Amberson, along with board members Leslie Rutan and Dawn Rand, asked that attention be paid to the enforcement of the bylaws on signs, and asked Farnsworth to update the board on an action plan.

Farnsworth, who said the last time he conducted an extensive enforcement blitz in town was 2010, said that the effort is time-consuming, and can be cumbersome to the point of little avail at times. Complaints, he said, are often anonymous, which doesn't give him the opportunity to respond (which is part of the protocol when someone complains about a sign).

If a sign is in violation, a verbal notice is given followed by a written violation, and if the organization, business or individual, doesn't comply, Farnsworth issues a ticket. They have 21 days to pay the ticket, and another ten to appeal the decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

In 2010, there were 154 businesses that Farnsworth addressed for inappropriate or illegal signs.

"With quite a few of them," he said, "I explained the bylaw and handed them a letter. Some were compliant, but others went right back to it and said they needed the signage."

"Part of the problem that we’ve had in the past," added Amberson, "is we’ve heard that, 'Well, I have to put one out because so and so has one out.' It is looked at as a competitive adanteage. I think we need to enforce whatever laws are in place. We can’t do it halfway."

Town Administrator John Coderre said that many of the signs that people assume are illegal are not.

"Then the other piece of this is that it seems like every couple of years it builds," said Coderre, "and we do a comprehensive enforcement. Our first approach is compliance. We’re not looking to fine people. And to Bill’s point, it’s a constant issue that we need to go back to, and to do it correctly and fairly is a significant endeavor. We did it in 2010, and it’s probably time to do that again."

Farnsworth added that in some cases, the clusters of signs are temporary due to refacing, such as Northborough Plaza, where Rocky's Hardware is located. Those, he said, last a few weeks and then are usually removed.

"I think the key here is we can’t let it go this time," said Amberson. "If we are going to educate folks, it’ll take effort and take time. We can’t let it go for another two years and let it get it out of control again. If we see stuff that we know isn’t legal, we should do something. As soon as one guy gets one out there, and nothing happens, that breeds more signs."

Rand added that while it is understandable that some businesses are "not as visible," these businesses "chose the location."

"I don't think the town has an obligation to have all these signs in front of the old town hall," she said. "We need to address this and we need to address it soon."

"It has gone on too long," said Leslie Rutan, vice chair of the board. "I look at this as the beautification of Northborough. We don’t have a beautiful downtown area, and throwing all these signs around makes it looks like this muddled area down there. I would like to see a concerted effort to address this." 

Chairman Bill Pantazis said the town is trying to educate people on what is legal. "Our intention is not to punish people," he said. "We are going to research it and come up with a plan of action, and everybody will be notified and that will be it."

DLF June 12, 2012 at 12:29 PM
This is a good point on the small signs that are around but whats more important is the fact that the town won't put up STOP signs where they are clearly needed. There have been many near misses at Fay Lane/Valentine Rd. including cars almost hitting the children crossing and waiting for the bus there. Drivers almost never stop where Valentine Rd. ends. The town officials should really address this before worrying about the small signs.
Ron Goodenow June 12, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Thanks for your fine coverage Charlene. It looks like some of our elected officials can see through the silly non-enforcement excuses and may be ready to take some action. I, for one, do not feel so lonely now. I have been photographing signs since 2009 and can assure readers that the situation is not only worse now, but many of the perps leave their signs out of long periods of time. I should note that the stop sign issue is an important one (there was also one at the corner of Green and Howard that should have been replaced; that is a killer of an intersection) but our arguments must be that ALL regulations be enforced or improved....and that the sandwich sign issues DOES often impact public safety.
Leslie Rutan June 12, 2012 at 12:52 PM
Hi DLF - The Town is always happy to look into stop sign requests, as this is a safety issue, not one of aesthetics. Please outline your concerns for the location you mention, and forward to me, or directly to the Police Chief (cc me), who will respond as to whether a sign at this location would be feasible/beneficial. Thank you! Leslie Rutan, Board of Selectmen ( leslierutan@charter.net )
The Troll of Northborough June 12, 2012 at 01:05 PM
The town wont hesitate to collect taxes on a business, but let them have a sign larger than 18" x 20" OMG(if lucky).. Nooooooo I agree signage needs to be controlled to preserve the look of the new giant highway going thru the center of town, Signs should be able to be easily read as a driver passes by. If you want all the sidewalk signs gone, Address the issue as to why they are there in the 1st place and allow larger signs on buildings, or a sign board at the plaza, Look at the size of the one that the new wegmans plaza gets, why isn’t every business allowed one that big? Not that I would want us to look like rt9 in Shrewsbury We have a number of plazas in town shopping, office, medical, the other places get a 10' tall x 5' sign board that they have to split with 12 - 20 business’s, as a result they get a sign that when standing on a sidewalk you still have to stop to read and see what’s there never mind driving by looking for it. Every business has the right to fair signage, but when you limit it to something so tiny you can’t find it, a business will take actions to be visible, as well business and shop owners pay taxes in town just like everyone else. Yes, Bill has been forgiving in enforcing the signage laws IMO, and I for one believe good reason. The allowable signage for business plaza’s needs to be corrected and say allow something more reasonable. Pt1
The Troll of Northborough June 12, 2012 at 01:05 PM
Pt2 Remember some times when sitting in a room things look good on paper and don’t work well in the real world, Look at the recent Mixed usage bylaw that was replied. I propose something like as follows for starters. Signage of xx sq feet PER business, not x sq feet per plaza. Perhaps with a Maximum size defined per business Sidewalk/sandwich board signs should be removed nightly ( 9PM – 6AM) not allowed Sidewalk/sandwich board signs cannot obstruct the view of motorist Sidewalk/sandwich board must be a Minimum of xx inches or feet from an intersection Sidewalk/sandwich board is not allowed within xx inches/feet of a cross walk. Temporary signs are defined as temporary placed for less than xx hours (24?) A special permit may be applied for to place a semi pertinent sign for xx days within allowed building codes and standards of the area said signage is requested to be placed.
DLF June 12, 2012 at 01:06 PM
Thank you Leslie, I will. Other neighbors have told me they have brought it to the attention of the Police with no results but I personally have not, so now I will. I appreciate your attention.
Leslie Rutan June 12, 2012 at 01:12 PM
Hi Main St Resident - I just forwarded this article and its comments to the Bldg Inspector, so that he can see the suggestions you've put together. Thanks for taking the time to do this. Leslie Rutan, Board of Selectmen
The Troll of Northborough June 12, 2012 at 06:41 PM
Thanks Leslie :) its good to see board members active here on this topic, it's not going to be an easy one for sure, this coin has 2 sides, very big sides.
Linda June 12, 2012 at 10:42 PM
I think in this economy, we need to let our local businesses do what they need to do to attract customers. It's tough out there. We can deal with the signs in a better economy.
PREDATOR June 12, 2012 at 11:22 PM
Linda...I respectfully disagree. This is the attitude that has gotten us where we are with illegal immigration. This approach, while easy and painless, rewards criminals and incumbers those who follow the law. Perhaps the town's laws need to be revamped or revised, I am not sure, but allowing criminality is never the answer. And rewarding it by inaction is even worse. Perhaps if the laws were enforced and fines collected for the town's coffers taes would not be raised year after year on those who obey the law.
Townie June 14, 2012 at 03:18 AM
What is with the old town croaks who waste time and energy deliberating impacted town beautification by means business signs? I for one, drive through town several times a day and have never even once noticed overpopulation of signage? Infact- I've patronized business's I wouldn't have otherwise visibly seen based on their sign. Let's leave the job of identifying safety hazards (a reasonable concern) to the inspector.
Leslie Rutan June 14, 2012 at 11:53 AM
Hi Townie - Thanks for your input on this! As you can see, however, the great majority of those who replied to the survey disagree with you. We want to see our businesses thrive, but not to the long-term detriment of Northborough's appearance. There are bylaws that allow some of it, but not all. Also, in addition to other duties, one of the responsibilities of the Bldg Inspector is the enforcement of these bylaws. Leslie Rutan, Board of Selectmen
Ron Goodenow June 14, 2012 at 01:12 PM
I personally take offense at being referred to as an 'old town croak' (whatever that is supposed to mean) by a person who doesn't have the fortitude to let us know his/her name. There is too darn much name calling around here by folks who hide behind false monikers. Blogger blight that is almost as bad as the signs. Turns me and a lot of others off. Thanks, Leslie, for the dose of realism.
Northborough Girl June 17, 2012 at 12:28 AM
The fluorescent honky-tonk and random raggedy signs need to go, it brings down our property values and frankly, their ugly. For that reason, I am not enticed or inclined to visit those establishments! Take the time to make a classy sign. Curb appeal people!!!
The Troll of Northborough July 11, 2012 at 06:29 PM
The hammer has dropped, Bill is out in full force enfocing signage rules I just saw him on main st telling the pizza guys to remove the board signs from the road.
Ron Goodenow July 11, 2012 at 06:50 PM
There should be a blog coming on this. Yes, some major enforcement under way. 'De-uglification' as I call it. We have to stay vigilant, however.
Dr. Brian Russell DM July 11, 2012 at 09:06 PM
Yes confirmed, Bill was here today, knocked on the door, pointed out what was in violation and gave copys of the bi laws to everyone here at the 292 Main st plaza. All the roadside temp signs needed to be pulled by close of business today. I will add, Bill was nice about it, very informitive and not in any way a jerk about it, I had to pull a few of my road side signs for computer repair even thou they are printed and designed, taken in every night, oh well.. live and learn I guess. Will be interesting how other business fair.
The Troll of Northborough July 17, 2012 at 05:46 PM
Nice to see that all the business's in town had to remove signs, only to be replaced with Paving people, tree removal people, day care, landscaping and house cleaning. So much for a cleanup, looks more like punishment for business’s with storefronts. And still, you drive around town, there’s more and more LARGE signs in residential areas, Some of these signs are larger than what the town allows for a business in town in a commercial location.
The Troll of Northborough July 17, 2012 at 07:55 PM
heres a few new photos showing "progress" Church st, new signs on lawns. Even on back roads, look at one guy, he has a "large" sign on his lawn for computer services in 2007 , Now in 2012 on 155 Pleasant its 2x the size. so much for following the rules eh?
Ron Goodenow July 17, 2012 at 09:30 PM
Just back from short vacation and will get camera out. I lived in a Connecticut town where the only way to shut down signs, particularly in residential areas, was to kill even real estate ones. And this was before the internet. I'm sure it won't come to that here but ugly is ugly and maybe there is a need for new regs.


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