BERLIN — More than a month in the works, Berlin’s new proposed sidewalk obstruction ordinance would remove the Historic District Commission (HDC) from the approval process for new sidewalk signs.
According to Mayor Gee Williams, the proposed ordinance would eliminate personal opinion from the matter and would expedite a cluttered process.
“We were taking what should have been a simple administrative process and turning it into a debate,” he said. “And for what purpose I have no idea.”
Under the old ordinance, any business seeking to add a sidewalk sign had to first appear before the HDC. The appointed board was then responsible for approving or rejecting the design of the structure, a practice that too often boiled down to personal opinion, asserted Williams.
“Quite frankly, I do not think that it’s our place to try or even attempt to regulate taste or that sort of thing,” he said. “If a business has a sandwich sign that is offensive, unattractive, doesn’t make sense or whatever, I think it will prove to be not an asset for that business. But that’s what the customers decide.”
By Town Attorney Dave Gaskill’s legal opinion, the HDC never actually had definitive authority to perform the role that it did even under the former ordinance.
“It doesn’t address who or what entity, as currently stated in the ordinance, it does not provide for who or what entity issues the permits,” he said. “Historically, the Historic District Commission has approved them. I am not of the opinion that the Historic District Commission had the authority to do that under our code.”
The new ordinance, which will head to first reading at the Town Council’s next meeting, would clarify the matter, said Gaskill. Authority to approve new sandwich board signs in town would fall on the shoulders of the Planning and Zoning Department Director, a post currently vacant. But unlike with the HDC, there would be no wiggle room for opinion; if a sidewalk sign meets the basic guidelines set by the town, it will have to be approved.
“That [Planning and Zoning director] will not have any discretion to issue a permit or not if these conditions are met,” Gaskill said.
Removing the HDC will “streamline the process a little better,” said Councilman Troy Purnell. Williams agreed.
“I just think we made it unduly onerous to get approval for something that is pretty straightforward,” he said.
At a public hearing on the ordinance two weeks ago, however, HDC members, including Chair Carol Rose, voiced concern that the town should have standards beyond the bare basics for which signs are approved.
“We support our merchants; we want them to do well. We want people to shop in their stores, to eat in their restaurants,” said Rose. “We want everyone to do well. That being said, there should be standards with these sidewalk signs.”
But at Monday’s meeting, Williams asserted that the line between standards and “taste” blur too often and it’s not the town’s job to only approve signs that officials find pleasing. As for the standards by which signs will be judged, little would change should the new ordinance pass.
Sidewalk signs would still need to be less than two feet wide at the base and under three feet in height. The core of the sign will have to be made of wood, though this would still allow for chalkboards and the like to be placed on the front of the signs. One change in the new ordinance is that signs would be authorized to stay out all night instead of having to be dragged in when shops close.
Finally, the new ordinance would carry over the old restriction that each business in town only be permitted one sign. This was a limitation that several town merchants petitioned the council to remove, asking businesses that are located off of Main Street be allowed two sidewalk signs to make up for a lack of foot traffic.
Drawing distinctions between merchants based on location was a bad road to begin down, opinioned Williams.
“As much as we can, we want to treat everybody the same,” he said.
Instead of using multiple signs, Williams suggested that all merchants need to do is continue to cross-promote each other.
“Every merchant downtown is trying to promote every other merchant, every other business, regardless of it it’s on Main Street or not,” he said. “Main Street is an address; it’s our backbone but it’s not the whole town. So I think that trying to draw distinctions that fine is not in the best interest of the town in the long haul.”
The council agreed that the ordinance would move forward to first reading at their next meeting in early July.
One other sidewalk obstruction concern was also addressed this week. The two restaurants in town that currently have chairs and tables out on town sidewalks will be expected to come before the council before their next meeting to ask for official permission to keep those obstructions in place.