, Newburyport, MA

January 10, 2013

Seabrook petitions ask OK for roadside blade signs

By Angeljean Chiaramida

---- — SEABROOK — Blade signs, reminiscent of the jib sail on a small boat, have become a popular, inexpensive, roadside marketing tool that calls fluttering attention to small businesses in local towns.

In Seabrook, however, they’re not allowed according to the town’s sign zoning ordinance. But that could change, since the signs are the subject of two citizen’s warrant petitions that residents will vote on March 12. Both petitions will receive formal hearings at the next Planning Board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 15, when the public is allowed to comment.

Small retailers often see additional signs as a way to reach out to customers driving or walking by, as they try to compete with big-box retailers.

But as independent business owners yearn to erect sign after sign in hopes of catching shoppers’ eyes, local zoning and planning boards are under pressure to present attractive streetscapes in their communities. Residents sometimes complain they don’t want hundreds of small, sometimes unattractive, signs cluttering roadsides.

Safety is also a reason why police and others are cautious about allowing an abundance of signs at the pavement’s edge, for they can interfere with the sight line of oncoming pedestrian and street traffic.

The issue became a topic of discussion in Seabrook on Dec. 4 when a number of Route 1 business owners asked the Planning Board to rewrite its sign ordinance to allow blade and other small signs. The small business owners complained they need some inexpensive marketing method to bring in customers, since they compete with Kohl’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart along the same stretch of roadway.

According to the draft minutes of the meeting, Mark Townsend, manager of a gold store next to Bob’s Tattoos in the little strip mall at 563 Lafayette Road, argued that blade signs are a $39.95 advertising option he’d like to utilize. But he can’t do so legally, because Seabrook’s sign ordinance prohibits them, as well as the small sandwich, or tent, signs he could place next to the roadway.

The minutes indicate that Planning Board Chairman Don Hawkins told the business owners the board’s job is to look for “consistency” in signage in its commercial districts. The idea is to have a sign ordinance that focuses on keeping the area looking good for everyone equally. Scores of sandwich boards and blade or flag signs along the highway aren’t the way, Hawkins said.

Selectman Aboul Khan, himself a Route 1 businesses owner and the selectmen’s representative to the Planning Board, said at the end of the discussion that the Planning Board felt satisfied with its sign ordinance as it was without alteration. However, the business owners were advised that filing a citizen’s petition for the upcoming warrant was an alternative that would place the issue before voters.

Another option is for owners to seek individual variances for the signage needs from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, citing hardship as a reason.

Building inspector Paul Garand, whose job it is to enforce Seabrook’s sign ordinance, said it’s hard to keep signs in check along the town’s business commercial districts. Constant checking is required, and when illegal signs are found, discussions with businesses owners take place or “friendly letters” go out to inform of sign violations.

In mid-December, about 20 sign notices went out to owners, including a number who had to blade signs. Since then, Garand said, all those who got the letters have complied with town regulations.

One citizen’s petition was submitted by Thomas O’Hara and 34 others and would allow blade signs on private property during business hours. The other petition, submitted by Planning Board alternate member Paula Wood and 34 others, would allow each town business one blade sign and one sandwich board during business hours.

This has been a busy year for warrant petition articles in Seabrook. Along with these two, there are eight other certified citizen’s petitions. They include the following:

To reverse the ban of fireworks displays on private property.

To raise $33,620 to provide child benefit services to the Seabrook School District and Sacred Heart School.

To name the gym at Seabrook Recreation Center in memory of long-time employee Edward “Ted” Pickard.

To raise $7,500 to partially fund Community Home Solutions.

To raise $119,500 to establish a football field at Gov. Weare Park.

A dog tethering ordinance, requiring the humane treatment of dogs kept outdoors.

To raise $10,000 to buy wrestling mats for the Seabrook Recreation Center to establish a youth wrestling program.

To raise $2,800 to install and require the use of dash cameras on all Seabrook police vehicles.