n-falsigns-011509 Signs of the times Town seeks guidance to balance business interests, aesthetics

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FALMOUTH — With small businesses scrambling to attract customers in a shaky economy, some business owners are hoping to change local ordinances that regulate sandwich-board style signs.
The Town Council took up the discussion at Monday’s meeting.
Councilor Dave Libby said he’d had several constituents talk to him about the need for additional signs to increase their exposure. Libby said one section of the town ordinance makes a provision for temporary signs to be attached to the building or freestanding for 30 days to advertise a new or relocated business. But the next section, he said appeared to contradict that.
“I think it (the ordinance) is 100 percent flawed,” Libby said. “It’s extremely poorly worded.”
But Councilor Joe Wrobleski disagreed.
“The ordinance is doing what it’s supposed to do – limit signage on the road to prevent clutter,” he said.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Wrobleski said he wasn’t sure if a business is considered new if it’s 6 months old or 1 year; he said 30 days is a fair amount of time to allow new businesses to use a temporary sign.
“If you limit it to new businesses it’s still pretty limited and I don’t think it would create an eyesore,” Wrobleski said.
But Libby said Tuesday that he was “appalled to hear Councilor Wrobleski’s attitude toward business signs in Falmouth.”
“I’m upset Joe (Wrobleski) can turn a blind eye toward business because he doesn’t like the way sandwich-board signs look,” Libby said. “We need to strike a better balance toward helping businesses be in business.”
Several store owners in West Falmouth have spoken to Libby about their need for better signs.
Adam Shapiro, who owns Bernie’s Place restaurant, has lived in Falmouth for 39 years and has run a business in the town for more than 20 years. His wife owns The Nest on the corner of Route 1 and Fundy Road.
“I was surprised about signs to be honest,” he said Tuesday. “I understand they’ve got to protect how things look and I actually agree with that, but during these tough times there has to be a little flexibility shown to businesses. Unless you’ve been in business for yourself it’s hard to understand.”
Shapiro suggested the town revamp the ordinance to allow for “tasteful signs” three days a week.
Though he may want more attention focused on his restaurant, the sign restriction hasn’t prevented him from adding a new business. Shapiro said he plans to open a pizza, bar and ice cream shop, with take-out and delivery, next door to Bernie’s Place in as little as 30 days.
Bill Davis’ Tobaccoland is another new business in the area near Maine Turnpike Exit 53. The cigar, pipe and roll-your-own tobacco shop opened just a few days before Christmas, owner Steve Guaciaro said. And, while he said the store is convenient to the exit, it’s a bit hard for people to see.
“It’s very difficult for a new business to get started without putting a portable sign up,” he said in a phone interview Monday. “If we’d located a half-mile down the road in Portland we wouldn’t have had this problem. I called (the town) the other day because I was interested in putting an awning up, but you can’t put your name on it. It’s kind of crazy in a way – they tie your hands behind your back.”
Though sandwich board-style signs are not currently allowed, Code Enforcement Officer Al Farris said Tuesday that a new business can have a banner or, in the case of the Exxon-turned-Irving gas station on Route 1 at Bucknam Road, put a temporary sign over an old sign until a new one is in place.
Falmouth is not the only town grappling with signage issues.
Freeport Planner Donna Larson said she’s heard from several business owners, especially those off Main Street, that say they need something more in the way of signs.
“We’re working informally with them; waiting for them to come up with a proposal,” she said. “With the low traffic, they need to try to get more business. We want them to be viable.”
Planner Dawn Emerson said Yarmouth is looking at allowing larger signs while maintaining uniformity and keeping them outside the right of way. Businesses are allowed to hang temporary banners – not just when they’re new, but for special events – but they must be removed no more than two weeks after the event is over.
Toward the end of the Falmouth council discussion Monday, it was agreed that Community Development Director Amanda Stearns and Town Manager Nathan Poore would amend the ordinance language to clarify the section on temporary signs. Stearns may have expressed everyone’s frustration when she called the issue a challenge between balancing the needs of small businesses with the town’s aesthetics.
While temporary signs for new businesses may be all that will be allowed when the ordinance is cleaned up, Libby said he believes the hard economic times warrant more changes to the ordinance.
“Those businesses pay rent to the people who own the buildings who, in turn, pay taxes to Falmouth,” he said.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.