By Kim Siebert MacPhail
Jeff Cohen, liaison from the Zoning Board of Appeals, acting as chair of the Sign Bylaw Review Committee, convened the well-publicized but scantily-attended meeting on December 13, saying he hoped for “an informal give and take” from the public on proposed changes to the “one size fits all” sign bylaws that are hard to read and difficult to interpret.
Cohen said that the Town underwent a charter and bylaw review in 2009. That process resulted in a recommendation to form the Sign Bylaw Review Committee. Established last January, the Committee reached out to the business community through the Chamber of Commerce and solicited input from the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Historic District Commission, the Council on Aging, from attorney Pam Brown, who assists many businesses with legal and permitting matters, and from interested residents.
“We have a lot of input and we’ve been weighing through it for the last 11 months,” Cohen said. “You could throw the whole thing out and start over, you could re-codify the entire thing—but that’s way beyond what we’re capable of doing at this time.
“So,” he said,“we focused on three major objectives:
Correct the confusing language and try to make it an easier document to read and interpret and clarify the areas that the Zoning Board typically struggles to understand;
Address a one-size-fits-all approach and try to make it more district-specific;
Try to make the bylaws more business-friendly to make it easier for businesses to attract customers. However, we’re also mindful of maintaining the aesthetic character of the town—we certainly don’t want to turn it into a Route 1.”
The Committee provided attendees with copies of the current bylaw document with the text that is to be eliminated and the additions marked in red. It also provided a clean copy of the same document and an “at-a-glance” table, a user-friendly tool that shows the guidelines for different kinds of signs in the different districts.
“We’re considering how to incorporate [the table] into the bylaw,” Cohen said, “but until that time, it can be used as a reference tool, available either online or at the Code Enforcement Department.”
Town Counsel has recommended that the sign bylaws ultimately be moved into the general bylaws; but for now, all that is required to change the sign bylaws is a simple majority at Town Meeting rather than the two-thirds vote that zoning bylaw amendments require.
Looking ahead for how to present the changes to Town Meeting, Cohen said that the Committee envisions breaking the revisions into categories, grouping like things together. Otherwise, he said, the process would be unwieldy, especially since revisions to proposed bylaws cannot be made on Town Meeting floor, but must be voted either up or down exactly as presented.
“We thought it would be important to get the word out as much as possible about what we’re proposing to do, just so people would go to Town Meeting with a little understanding of where we’re coming from,” said Cohen. “Hopefully, Town Meeting won’t be the very first time they’re looking at the documents. That way there’ll be a more informed discussion. . . .I don’t want to turn this into the Sign Bylaw Town Meeting of 2013, but there’s a lot that we’re looking at doing. I think it could carry over until the fall Town Meeting.”
Several in the audience had comments on the work the committee has done so far.
Bedford resident Jim O’Neil praised the Committee for the user-friendly table they produced. But he also noted what he called“significant policy changes”that the public should be aware of.He asked what the A-frame or sandwich board guidelines would be and took exception to the height allowance for signs, saying that if each business along The Great Road was allowed a 10-foot-high sign, it would not be something people would like.
On the subject of A-frames, Cohen said the issue was difficult and discussion on the issue had been long. Committee member Ralph Zazula said that the Committee concluded the Selectmen would remain, as they are now, the permitting body for that type of sign.
As for the concern about height, Cohen noted that some of the signs people most object to now—like the car wash, gas station, and shopping plaza signs—are grandfathered, a matter he says is difficult to address.
O’Neil said he used a guideline that he developed when reviewing the Committee’s revisions.“This is my statement,” he said. “‘Do the proposed changes result in a more attractive town and a more desirable location to live [in]?’. . .I’m in complete disagreement with the height requirements on Middlesex Turnpike. . . .It’s my feeling that commercial establishments—restaurants and things like that—if you have good food and good service [or a good product],in most cases people will eventually come to you. You don’t need a large sign.”
“The Chamber of Commerce would disagree with that,” Cohen replied.
Angelo Colasante, Chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA),questioned how the size for signs in the industrial district would be determined. He also asked about flags and banners, which he said businesses sometimes ask to erect to announce a special event or an award.
“As long as the flag is related to the nature of the business, it would be allowed,” Cohen said, “They’d still have to get a special permit.”
Steve Henning, another member of the ZBA, commented, “The sign bylaw is complex and circuitous and contradictory in places and ambiguous—and you know all that and that’s why you’re here. If you could simplify it—I know that’s what you’re trying to do. But when I went through this. . .it’s hard to read. If you could just start over. That’s probably one of the options you considered.”
Cohen replied, “It is longer to read, no question, but we broke it into sections so that if you wanted to know what the bylaw was for the industrial zone [for example], you could go right to that section. Those are types of things we were trying to fix.”
Communication from a representative from Mitre, sent through Attorney Pam Brown, related the company’s frustration with a “slow, clunky process,” saying it seems as if “everything requires a special permit.”
The Committee said that it would discuss these new comments in upcoming meetings. The first one is scheduled for this coming Thursday, December 20.
To read the sign bylaw documents in their current draft form, visit the Committee’s webpage: https://www.town.bedford.ma.us/index.php/committees/committees-q-z/sign-bylaw-review-committee
Has the committee looked at other towns’ bylaws? Specifically those with very attractive signage, like Wellesley, Lexington, Winchester, etc.? Similarly, have they looked at towns that appear more open with their signage restrictions, to see where common pitfalls might be? Seems like they’re trying to reinvent the process.