Cumberland council postpones LED sign decision

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CUMBERLAND — The Town Council on Monday narrowly tabled a proposal that would in part allow illuminated outdoor signs in the Town Center District.

The panel also tabled expansion of the Town Center District.

The Planning Board last month recommended repealing and replacing the sign ordinance in the Cumberland code, but excluded provisions governing LED signs. The council’s Ordinance Subcommittee favored including those provisions, which would allow the signs.

The updated code would regard new signs. Signs lit from within are prohibited everywhere in town, except those grandfathered on properties like Greely High School, where the use predates the sign ordinance. The new code would only allow LED signs in the Town Center District.

A request from the Cumberland Congregational Church to place an LED sign on its 282 Main St. property prompted the study. The School Administrative District 51 parent-teacher organization has mentioned purchasing an LED sign for the Mabel I. Wilson school, 353 Tuttle Road, which is not currently in the Town Center District.

The church is already in that district, which runs along Main Street from the congregational church to Atlantic Credit Union, just beyond Farwell Avenue. That area also includes the former Doc’s Cafe, the Cumberland Food Stop, and Louie’s Grill.

In order to facilitate the Wilson school’s ability to have an LED sign, the Town Council on Monday was to vote on the expansion of the Town Center District, in order for it to stretch down Tuttle Road to the Greely Middle School driveway, and contain the Wilson School. The district would also be expanded in order to include Greely High.

Because the sign ordinance was tabled, the council then unanimously postponed a related vote on the zone expansion.

The proposed sign rules call for new LED signs to, in part, be no more than 42-by-72-inches; operate only from 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; adhere to a specific number of illumination units (10,000 nits); change only once every 20 minutes, and be black and white only.

Doug Currie of Main Street, who lives within the Town Center District, was among those Monday who was opposed to the sign ordinance change.

Having looked into studies on LED signs, he said, “This is not to my mind about the church having a nice sign, or the school having a nice sign. These are the implications about having signs all the way down Main Street, because that’s what is the potential consequence of this particular motion.”

Currie noted that outdoor LED signs are intended to catch and hold one’s attention, which can increase driver distraction and consequently pose a higher risk for accidents.

Paul Auclair of Olivia Lane offered a different opinion, noting, “Most of the studies I’ve looked at are based on conventional LED signs with lights, with flashing, with scrolling, with a lot of movement,” unlike those the town would allow.

The results also depended on traffic speeds and the distance the signs are from the road, he added, stating the 25 mph limit through the Town Center District would not be a significant issue. Auclair also pointed out that only the letters on the proposed signs are illuminated at night, unlike externally lit signs, where the entire sign is lit up.

John Davis of Village Way said the church’s request “seems quite minor to me,” but suggested, “This is not the venue that ought to be deciding” the matter.

He called for the town to develop a master plan of how it would like the town center to appear over the next decade, “and in that master plan, debate all of these issues.”

Carolyn Currie of Main Street said the town center was residential when she moved there 13 years ago but was later rezoned to permit mixed uses. She noted that businesses neighbor her on both sides, and said she had concerns about LED signs shining into her windows at night.

“I really am seriously concerned about what (allowing the signs) will do to our life on Main Street, our day-to-day existence,” Currie said. “It’s not going to kill us, but it’s not going to be lovely.”

Diane Bennekamper, senior minister at the Cumberland Congregational Church, said the church raised the sign issue “because we’d like to provide more of a service to the town,” noting that many events go on within the building that are unrelated to its religious purpose.

“We’d like the people in the town to be able to know that these things are happening, and when, and where, so they can participate in them,” Bennekamper said. “… The sign that we would propose would have the least impact on the town, (and) its character.”

In its deliberations, councilors suggested tabling the item until an LED sign – like the one that would be limited by town restrictions – could be displayed in Cumberland, particularly at night, so town officials and residents alike could see what kind of luminary impact the sign would create.

Peter Bingham – who motioned to approve the ordinance, then later withdrew that motion and voted with fellow councilors Ron Copp and Mike Edes against tabling the matter – said a sign had been shown last summer, and the council could still be stymied after another has been displayed.

“I think we’re just weaseling this thing, and we’re going to come back another month, and we’re going to weasel it again,” he said. “… It’s just kicking the can down the road.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Shown at Monday’s Cumberland Town Council meeting, the Cumberland Congregational Church sign, at left, is compared to an illuminated sign at 7 percent lumination power.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.