By Kim Siebert MacPhail
The ad hoc Sign Bylaw Review Committee brought its recommendations before the Selectmen on Monday night for an open hearing in advance of the finalization of the Annual Town Meeting warrant. Chair Jeff Cohen of the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and Planning Board committee member Lisa Mustapich presented proposed changes that could result in as many as 11 Town Meeting articles in April, though some could be postponed until Special Town Meeting in the fall.
The range of subjects covered by the revisions includes barber pole regulations; sign illumination; the types of signs permitted and not permitted; political signs; sign dimensions; and how rules might change depending on the kind of zone a sign is in: residential, business, commercial or industrial. The Committee also worked to simplify the language and structure of the sign bylaw to make it generally easier to understand and for the ZBA to interpret.
For an earlier article about the proposed changes, visit: https://thebedfordcitizen.org/2013/01/15/sign-bylaw-review-committee-presents-selectmen-with-twelve-possible-town-meeting-articles/
To see a draft of the proposed revisions, see the Committee’s web page on the Town’s website: https://www.town.bedford.ma.us/index.php/committees/committees-q-z/sign-bylaw-review-committee
Cohen began the presentation by recognizing the efforts of his committee members—Lisa Mustapich, Ralph Zazula, Kevin Latady, and Karen Kenney—as well as the Selectmen’s liaison Mark Siegenthaler, Code Enforcement Officer Chris Laskey and Scott Gould, who provided administrative support.
“They put in many, many hours, many nights. They’ve done yeoman’s work,” Cohen said.
Cohen added that the Committee started by meeting once a month, then increased to twice each month in order to meet the Selectmen’s deadline for the review for the Town Meeting warrant. The Committee solicited input from multiple stakeholders—members of the ZBA, the Historic District Commission, the Planning Board, the Chamber of Commerce, local businesses, members of the public—yielding “hundreds of comments.” Cohen said that the Committee also compared Bedford’s sign bylaw with those of other towns: Lexington, Concord, Hingham, Chatham and Medford.
After going over the revisions, the Selectmen opened the floor for public comment.
Toni Bradley of Serenity Yoga Center asked whether or not there would be a change to the provisions for second floor business signs. Cohen said that the rule would not change for the time being but that the Committee might take it up in the future.
Speaking on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, attorney Pam Brown said, “One thing that our member businesses have said again and again is that none of them are looking to have tacky signs or that Bedford should become like Route 1. For the most part, it comes down to visibility to attract and identify the businesses. . . .Hopefully, in time, we can replace some of the older signs that aren’t as attractive with newer signs that are.
“Overall, I think [the proposed] changes are good for the business community,” Brown continued. “Some of the provisions clarify or help, because it’s hard for me to explain—for me as a Chamber member or me as an attorney—[how we calculate the sign measurements.]
Resident Jim O’Neil, who has followed the sign bylaw revision process closely, referred to the fact that the sign bylaw articles have to be voted up or down and cannot be amended on the floor of Town Meeting.
“The article either has to go in its entirety or not at all. There are quite a few things that I will be speaking against in the business district [section of the revisions].
“It’s my experience that the ZBA has never turned down a special request,” O’Neil continued. “In most cases, if they are allowed to use discretion, they will allow the most generous interpretation. . . .I basically think, ‘Do no harm’ [should be the standard]—we’ve done a good job, the [town] is looking better, we can’t remove grandfathering [of older signs] yet [so] don’t change [the bylaw]. That’s my general recommendation. ”
O’Neil also took exception to the proposed changes that would allow businesses to use banners under certain circumstances.
“Most of us are fairly intelligent and if the lights are on, you know the store is open and if the lights are off, you know it’s closed. Most of us have that capability.”
Brown from the Chamber of Commerce responded to O’Neil’s comments.
“Especially when new businesses come in, they struggle. . . . Businesses are coming and going before enough people figure out that they’re here and they’re good. Bedford has prided itself in trying to attract mom and pop businesses with small shops that represent the character of this community – not the franchises, not the drive-thru’s. . . .It’s all about visibility and letting people know they’re there.
“Yes, there are businesses that would like sandwich boards and yes, there are businesses that would like internal illumination but part of that has to do with competition [with] some of the [grandfathered] non-conforming signs that exist,” Brown continued. “Something [visually] new that pops up [like a flag or a banner] is going to help us say, ‘Hey! Is that new?’ This is the kind of thing that’s going to help businesses survive in this community”
Jeff Goldberg, owner of 54 Middlesex Turnpike and the Boardroom Bistro then spoke.
“We’ve been open for 2½ years,” Goldberg said, “and we comply with the sign bylaws. Three times in the last two weeks people have said, ‘Wow, I love your food! When did you open?’ They just never knew we were here.
“Nothing that’s written in the new proposals seems to address the possibility of people finding our location driving by on Middlesex Turnpike,” Goldberg added. “After the construction is over, which has hindered our business, and people are driving by 10 miles over the speed limit, they won’t see our sign and there’s nothing we can do on the street because we’re limited to one sign. We’re facing an uphill battle. Max and Dylan’s, up the street, has road frontage in Bedford, but their building is in Billerica so there’s all sorts of illuminated signs to whatever degree they seem to want.
“There’s really a difficulty for people to know what’s going on,” Goldberg continued. “It would be really helpful if the Selectmen of this town—through the sign laws—find a way that a [business] can survive when we are a mom and pop type thing and we don’t have orange arches or whatever they are.”
Dana Strayton of Prince Street Café and Bakery at 200 Great Road, formerly the Carriage House Café, spoke as well about having an uphill battle.
“I’ve been in town now for almost two years,” Strayton said. “I have fought terribly to get visibility. I’m unfortunately in a [location with no direct street frontage]. I’m only allowed to have a 2 by 2 [feet] sign on the [plaza’s] directory. If you’re at that light [at Loomis and Great Road], no one is looking at the directory. The Depot Park sign is the first thing you see, you don’t look at the directory at all.
“I have a continuous battle trying to survive,” Strayton continued. “I don’t have mass marketing. I don’t have branding—I don’t have the Starbucks, the Quizno’s, the Subway (that’s coming in three weeks); I don’t have that immediate visibility, immediate identification. I’m a small business, trying to survive in this town. It is incredibly difficult.
‘It seems to me that the Selectmen and the Town have to decide if they want small business or if they want chains,” Strayton added. “The choice is going to be the McDonalds, the Quizno’s, the Subways and the Starbucks—and now Chipotle coming in— or the Firebox, the Boardroom Bistro, Café Keresa. It’s all of us. We’re all small businesses and we want to be part of this community and we chose this community for a reason. But we can’t survive if we’re not able to get some more visibility.”