WEST NEWBURY — The Planning Board and the Board of Selectmen have apparently agreed to disagree about the legitimacy of the digital message board out in front of the public safety building.
The sign, made from all composite material with an high-resolution, 4K LED screen, was funded by the Kenneth Fowler Foundation as a way to commemorate the countless contributions made to the community by the late Donald Fowler, who died in 2015 — just days shy of his 72nd birthday —and his only son Kenneth, a West Newbury firefighter who died in 2007 at 37 years old.
At a meeting last week, the two boards debated whether the sign met the criteria of the latest iteration of the town’s sign bylaw adopted in 2017.
After the sign was installed earlier this year, Planning Chair Brian Murphey reports that his board discussed its belief that the sign didn’t meet size requirements and was also nonconforming because it relied on internal lighting.
“We don’t allow internally illuminated signs in this town — we just don’t,” Murphey told selectmen.
Selectman Glenn Kemper responded that both the ATM sign at Haverhill Bank in the town square and the sign in front of the regional school campus are illuminated internally.
But Murphey countered that approval for those signs followed the required public hearings. Planners want the sign brought into compliance, or else selectmen should seek relief from the Zoning Board of Appeals, Murphey said.
Selectmen Chairman David Archibald pointed out that his board held numerous open meetings at which the donation of the sign and its composition were discussed. Following some public feedback, tweaks were even made to the light intensity and color after it was installed, he said.
“There was a lot of time for public input — these were scheduled meetings they were not done in secret. There was very little comment about the sign from anyone — except selectmen,” he noted.
Town counsel Michael McCarron advised planners that the message board wasn’t actually considered a sign but instead fell under the category of “informational devices by public agencies.”
For that reason, it was not subject to the sign bylaw, McCarron had stated. But the land board disagreed with this opinion, claiming the category McCarron cited was for traffic signage such as “one way stop signs and detour signs.”
“That’s why we wanted to seek an outside (legal) opinion because we think there is an error here,” said Murphey, “It’s a nonconforming sign in our opinion.” But in order to seek outside legal advice, town boards and committees must first get authorization from selectmen.
Archibald stressed that the sign was made in memory of two residents who contributed substantially to the community. “These are people who are trying to do something good for the town. Are you going to say, ‘No, we don’t want your gift’?” he asked.
“The funding mechanism is irrelevant,” responded Planner Rick Bridges. Nobody was questioning the generosity of the gift or the contributions of the two men it honors. Murphey acknowledged that people have told him they like the sign. The problem is, it doesn’t meet the town’s own criteria for signage — rules to which other properties and businesses are held, he said.
John Dodge of the Open Space Committee — which unanimously voted to recommend the sign be brought into compliance — wondered what message town leaders were sending when the town isn’t following its own bylaws.
He noted that the largest signs in town are on the 1910 Town Office Building, the Pentucket regional campus, the library and, now, the public safety building. The message is clear said Dodge: The town gets what it wants, but everyone else’s “feet are held to the fire.”
Custom-built by Neokraft in Lewiston, Maine, and supported by 10-foot granite posts created by Swenson Granite, the $26,000 sign includes two plaques on either side “for Donnie and Kenny,” says Sgt. Dan Cena of the Police Department, who spearheaded the effort to obtain the sign for the town.
Foodmart owner Don Fowler was known for his generous support of events and organization in town; Ken Fowler, managed the family store and was a devoted lieutenant in the local fire department.
“I really hope that when people drive by and see the sign, that they realize it is there to memorialize two great men of this town that have passed on way too soon,” Cena said at the time the gift was made. “I want their names and the positive impact they had on this community to live on for years and years to come.”
“We’re kind of at an impasse here,” said Archibald, toward the end of the discussion last week.
“We wanted to air our concerns about the process,” Murphey concluded.