BERLIN — Town merchants turned out in force Monday for a public hearing on sidewalk obstructions and exceptions in Berlin.
After nearly an hour of comments, the Mayor and Council chose to table voting on the ordinance until their next meeting and to look at ways to “tighten” the language in the document as well as consider the requests made by merchants.
The most popular request made during the hearing was for merchants who were located off-Main Street to be allowed two sandwich-board signs. Currently, all vendors in town are only allowed a single sign. While this may be adequate for the businesses located on Main Street who catch the most foot traffic, Berlin Chamber of Commerce Secretary Mike Wiley told the council, “The merchants off of Main Street have a visibility problem.”
By allowing the more secluded merchants the option of a second sidewalk sign, Wiley said the chamber expects a significant number of visitors to further explore the town and find shops they may have never encountered otherwise.
Shelly Bruder, owner of Bruder Hill, agreed, saying, “We have a hard time not being on Main Street.”
Bruder’s current sandwich-board sign has already brought in much more business than she believes would have visited otherwise. Since the town began taking a renewed look at sidewalk obstruction over the past month, Bruder said that she has been polling new customers. A huge number of them only found the store because of its sign. Allowing off-Main Street vendors a second sign could provide an economic boost without creating an unreasonable amount of clutter, according to Bruder.
Though the merchants were united in asking for a second sign option, the town’s Historic District Commission (HDC) opposed the idea.
“We support our merchants; we want them to do well. We want people to shop in their stores, to eat in their restaurants,” said HDC Chair Carol Rose. “We want everyone to do well. That being said, there should be standards with these sidewalk signs.”
Rose listed four standards that the HDC recommends the town work into any new sidewalk obstruction ordinance. The HDC suggests that sandwich-board sign only be made of wood, stay at the current dimensions allowed, be painted and be regulated to only one sign per business.
Furthermore, HDC member Joel Todd asked that whatever standards the town adopts that the HDC continue to serve in its role reviewing sign applications. Todd emphasized the need for “enforceable standards,” the likes of which he hasn’t seen in the most recent draft of the ordinance. As it is currently written, Todd pointed out that there is “ambiguity” in the language that does not even limit signs that can be placed in Berlin to town businesses. He offered a hypothetical where the Red Light District located off Route 50 could ask to put their sandwich-board sign in downtown Berlin.
When asked by a merchant in the audience why the HDC didn’t support a second sign for off-Main Street shops, Todd replied the commission was only going on what it believes the current code allows as interpreted to them by a town staff person. Should the town decide to allow two signs for some vendors then the HDC will adapt, he promised.
“I have learned through this process that my personal opinion doesn’t matter,” said Todd. “If the town says two signs are approved, then we will apply whatever guidance and ordinance that the town gives us whether that comports with our personal opinions or not.”
Mayor Gee Williams told the merchants he understood why they would want an additional sign if they were located away from the usual visitor foot traffic. However, allowing some businesses the privilege while denying it to others would be a bit of a “double-standard,” he said. If the town decided to allow all businesses that second sign, the mayor added that the sidewalks would fill up fast.
“I hate to think of what the nightmare would be if we had two signs for every business,” said Williams, who did not dismiss the two-sign concept outright.
Another issue that the town might look into is a business directory sign, according to Michele Harrington, co-owner of Oh My Hair.
“There’s not a sign anywhere that’s a directory of businesses, per se, is there?” she asked, adding such a directory might work well placed in a parking lot downtown.
The council agreed to table a vote on the ordinance until their next meeting. Councilwoman Lisa Hall asked that the language be “tightened up” and clarified. The council also told merchants that their comments will be considered in further crafting the document.
One topic that didn’t receive much discussion was what should be done with tables and chairs that some restaurants have placed outside of their doors. The first draft of the ordinance would require the business owners to seek special permission from the council to put tables on the sidewalk. For the time being, Williams noted the council has not asked any merchants to remove tables that might already be out and there are no plans to do so at this time.