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."