BERLIN — Recent concern over what merchants can put on sidewalks has the town of Berlin amending its rules to provide for exceptions in what is considered a sidewalk “obstruction.”
The new ordinance would require merchants to get permission from the Mayor and Council to put tables or chairs on the sidewalk in front of their business. Sandwich-board signs would not need council permission, however.
Representing several “off-Main Street” businesses, Robin Tomaselli of Baked Dessert Café appeared before the council Tuesday to stress the concern town merchants have about the need for sidewalk advertising.
“Sandwich-board signage offers every business exposure, product availability and directional information which in turn increases business traffic and therefore revenue,” she said. “For those of us who are off the main grid, the use of sandwich board signage is critical to our success.”
Worries over how the town might crack down on sidewalk clutter surfaced earlier this month after an April Historic District Commission (HDC) meeting. Comments made during that meeting ignited a spark amongst town merchants who feared that the town was planning on outlawing any objects on the sidewalk, such as sandwich-board signs or tables for restaurants.
The ensuing turmoil resulted in the forced resignation of Planning and Zoning Director Chuck Ward over what Mayor Gee Williams described as numerous incidents of communication issues.
This week, seeking to pacify business owners, the town introduced an ordinance that would allow a merchant to have a table and chairs on the sidewalk if it first sought permission from the council. Under the new ordinance, sandwich-board signs would still be legal and would not require council permission.
In addition to the language of the new ordinance, Tomaselli suggested that the council make a few additions before the document goes through a second reading on June 10. She asked that merchants be allowed to leave their signs out overnight and that they also be allowed to have more than one sandwich-board sign in town if they so choose.
According to Tomaselli, in the last three weeks since sidewalk obstruction has come up as an issue, many business owners in town have polled their new customers to see how effective sidewalk advertising is.
“Over 90 percent of new customers polled said that they found us by the use of our sandwich-board signs,” she told the council.
Members of the council said that Tomaselli brought up some good points. Williams said that it was common sense to allow signs to stay out overnight.
“I do understand the logic of leaving the signs up … why is it causing any problems?” he asked. “We have excellent street lighting.”
The mayor asked the council to consider removing that restriction from the books before the ordinance’s second reading in June. Tomaselli’s second request that businesses be allowed multiple signs was not as quickly supported. Williams wondered if there might be an alternative that would not lead to a crop of new sandwich-board signs on sidewalks.
“I’m a little concerned about too much of a good thing,” he said.
Councilwoman Lisa Hall suggested that the town think about how store signs could be put on blank walls around Berlin, keeping the advertising intact without any additional clutter.
“That’s a blank canvas there,” she said.
Economic and Community Development Director Michael Day said that if the council wanted to move in that direction “there are a lot of walls that we could use.”
While on the subject, Hall took a moment to clarify her concerns about sidewalk obstruction. Despite any rumors to the contrary, Hall said that her only questions about sidewalk objects in Berlin will revolve around Americas With Disability Act (ADA) compliance and liability if someone injures themselves and blames sidewalk clutter.
“No one was trying to get rid of signs,” she said. “I just had two questions.”
Tomaselli said that she had personally measured all such signs in town and found them all to fall under the ADA guidelines. As for liability, town attorney Dave Gaskill said that the responsibility for any injuries caused by signs or objects on the sidewalk would most likely fall on the business that placed them there.
One final request made by Tomaselli is that the town makes it abundantly clear who merchants need to contact and receive approval from when requesting a new sidewalk sign. She said that some businesses feel like they are in “limbo” right now and a few were even informed not to request signs because the council might plan on removing them.
“But the signs didn’t get struck, the zoning director did,” said Williams, referring to Ward’s forced resignation.
William promised that the ordinance would be crystal clear once it was officially ready for adoption, most likely after the council’s June 10 meeting. The HDC has traditionally approved or rejected sandwich-board signs.
Following the discussion, Jennifer Dawicki, owner of The Globe restaurant, approached the council with the idea of establishing some kind of liaison between town merchants and its government. That way any future miscommunications could be avoided and business owners would not have to worry that the council was going to swoop in and sweep sidewalks clean of everything.
“Rather than us reacting to the newspaper and reacting to this, we could create some kind of open dialog on a regular basis,” she said.
Such a mechanism already exists, according to Williams. Day’s office is open to any members of the business community. In the future, the mayor suggested that Dawicki or any other merchant keep in contact with Day and come to him with any questions they have. Problems still might pop up first in the media, Williams admitted, but in those cases Day is only a phone call away.