Competing interests frame Falmouth sign debate
FALMOUTH — Why are signs such a big deal in Falmouth?
It's a question raised in the wake of debate over the sign at TideSmart Global on Route 1.
“If you look at a lot of communities, one of the hardest parts of ordinances to write, come to agreement on and enforce, are signs,” Town Manager Nathan Poore said. “They’re always a very difficult subject matter to arrive at a balanced approach.”
Perception plays a key factor in the creation of zoning ordinances in any municipality, Poore said.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “What is an appropriate size for one person is not appropriate for the other. There are a lot of competing interests when it comes to signs and sign regulations.”
While the summer has been a controversial one when it comes to signs, Amanda Sterns, community development director, said Falmouth is not unique in its regulation of signs.
“Every community has to make a choice about whether or not they regulate signs and how they do it,” she said. “It’s very common for communities to regulate all kinds of signs.”
Yet, over the summer signs from the commercial to the political have been under the microscope of town officials.
Political sign turmoil
In late August, the town and state House District 112 Republican candidate John Logan Jones clashed after he claimed public works officials removed signs from his supporters' property.
“(The signs) were on people’s lawns,” Jones said Tuesday. “None of them, at least any that I put personally, were on medians or alongside roads.”
State law and town ordinance prohibit political signs on public roadsides in the right-of-way until six weeks before the election, or until Sept. 26 for the Nov. 6 general election.
The town ordinance allows signs on private property at any time before the election, as long as they are out of the right-of-way.
Town Clerk Ellen Planer said no signs were removed from private property.
“We didn’t take anything that was questionable, whether it was in the right of way or whether they were on private property,” she said.
The topic of political signs is not only up for debate in Falmouth.
Last week, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine called their laws unconstitutional, Lewiston, Farmington and Alfred agreed that they would not enforce local ordinances prohibiting political signs – even on private property – until six weeks before the election.
Alysia Melnick, a lawyer with the ACLU of Maine, said she hasn’t heard from anyone in Falmouth about similar constitutional violations, but if it is happening the ACLU would want to look into it.
“If it looked like (Falmouth is) trying to enforce the same kid of unconstitutional measures that some other Maine municipalities were imposing, we would want to take action to make sure that people’s free speech rights were protected,” she said.
Jones said he has given up the fight with the town over signs and does not plan to put up any more until the six-week mark.
“It’s unfortunate the town thought they could take (signs) off people’s property without talking to the property owner,” he said. “(But) I just kept knocking on doors. At the time I was unhappy about it, I still am, but there are more pressing matters.”
Falmouth businesses, meanwhile, have been slow to take advantage of a new ordinance that allows temporary signs on business property.
The town ordinance, passed May 30, allows business owners to display temporary signs for one week, four times a year, if they register the sign and pay a one-time $25 fee.
There are some restrictions on the signs: there can be no moving parts or lights, signs can’t be too close to the road and sign size is limited to 10 feet, unless located in the right-of-way, where they may only be 3 feet tall.
Theo Holtwijk, Falmouth's director of long range planning, said few business owners have availed themselves of the ordinance. “I haven’t seen a lot of new signs put up,” he said Tuesday.
He said that he thinks most businesses haven’t taken advantage of the ordinance because they don’t know the provisions or don’t know it exists at all.
If businesses don’t take advantage of the ordinance, a sunset clause will take effect and it will be eliminated in December 2013.
There have been no new developments in the TideSmart Global sign saga over the last week, but as of last Tuesday, the town was still asking owner Steve Woods to bring his sign into compliance with the existing ordinance.
The sign at TideSmart includes lettering that is one inch smaller than the required five inches. Also, Town Council Chairwoman Faith Varney has said the sign is 8 feet tall, a foot taller than the ordinance allows; Woods maintains that the sign is only 6 feet tall.
Woods, who is chairman of the Yarmouth Town Council and an independent candidate for U.S. Senate, is expected to address the council in October in hopes of coming to a settlement.