Berlin Looks To Clarify Code On Sidewalk Concerns

BERLIN — After a couple weeks of saber-rattling and gnashing of teeth over perceived sidewalk clutter in the form of temporary signs and tables and chairs, the Berlin Mayor and Council on Monday agreed to amend the existing town code to clarify what is acceptable and where.

In front of a full house, including residents and downtown merchants on Monday, the Mayor and Council agreed to come up with an ordinance that will address the issue of temporary signs and restaurant tables and chairs in the public walkways throughout Berlin. The issue came to a head in April when the town’s Historic District Commission (HDC) heard several complaints about the proliferation of temporary structures along Berlin’s sidewalks and could find little clarity in the existing code to address the concerns. The Mayor and Council picked up the issue this week and promised to revisit the sections of the code regarding sidewalks and temporary signs and other structures.

“We need to codify all of this and make sure we’re all on the same page,” said Mayor Gee Williams. “We need to set the record straight on this before everything gets more wild.”

Williams said there have been sections in the code addressing temporary structures, but the downtown area has changed dramatically in recent years with the proliferation of new businesses and some of those sections might have to be revisited as a result.

“There has been an ordinance on the books for years,” he said. “It covers scales, newspaper boxes, even stone flower pots. Most of the things are there for aesthetic purposes and they’ve added to the town.”

Councilwoman Lisa Hall said during the HDC meeting in April sidewalk obstructions in the form of signs, tables and chairs had become an issue of public safety. She welcomed the concept of revising the code.

“I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “We need to let everybody know exactly what the policy is for sidewalks.”

Town Attorney Dave Gaskill said the code had specific language relating to the placement of temporary signs, but the rules for restaurant tables and chairs were somewhat vague. Gaskill confirmed temporary signs had to be just that.

“The ordinance provides that they have to be moved after the close of business,” said Gaskill. “Tables and chairs are not covered in the code.”

Williams said there would likely be some changes to the code regarding the placement of temporary signs, but those with existing signs might not be affected.

“Basically, signs already approved are fine,” he said. “If you’re getting a new sign, there might be some new requirements. They would have to be taken down at the close of business, for example.”

The mayor suggested downtown merchants exercise common sense when placing temporary signs until the code changes are in place.

“The one thing I would never advise is putting them right in the middle of the sidewalk. I don’t think there is any intention to block mobility, especially for those with disabilities,” he said.

Williams said the intent of the proposed changes was to add some consistency to the vague code.

“We need to have an open discussion and let people know what is acceptable,” he said. “We need one set of requirements for movable things, and they should probably be slightly more lenient than those for more permanent things.”

In terms of the restaurant tables and chairs issue, Williams said the town’s elected officials will likely continue to hold the authority on permission.

“If you wish to put out tables and chairs, you’re going to have to come before the Mayor and Council and make sure they don’t infringe on Maryland accessibility requirements,” he said.

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