Commentary: Signs for our times

By Cynthia Prairie
©Telegraph Publishing LLC-2014

The Chester Planning Commission has begun considering making further changes to the sign regulations within the Unified Development Bylaws after tweaking them in the last go-round. (You can read them at right.)

Click each file to enlarge

Click each file to enlarge

It had amended the Home Occupation and Home Business standards by cutting in half the allowable signage – to 2 square feet, not exactly a business friendly move after so much emphasis on promoting home businesses.

Still, sign regulations are important to a community. They prevent sign overload — at least they do if businesses abide by them.  And they help visitors find their way. Those two points are outlined in the preamble — the “purpose” section — of the sign ordinance.

And it’s in that preamble that you will find the fundamental problem with Chester’s sign ordinance. Sign regs 2The “purpose” section never states that signs are important to the economic health of the businesses that display them. Yet it is Chester’s businesses that must abide by the regulations and it is those businesses that are directly impacted by them. And it is also our businesses that add to the economic vitality and character of a community with jobs, higher property tax rates and things to do.

On a recent Monday night, more than 20 business owners — there are more than 100 businesses in town — turned out to tell the Planning Commission that they weren’t very happy with the sign regulations and wanted them changed —  not necessarily to help their businesses but at least not to hinder their success. They highlighted problems with the regulations, such as not keeping up with new technology like solar powered and LED lighting and not taking into consideration Sign regs 3speed limits and road frontage.

Signs can benefit businesses but they can harm them as well. Most businesses need signage, either to let customers know where they are or to brand their business.  But signs that are worn and faded or just plain unattractive, overly large or very small do nothing to help a business and may indeed detract from not only the sign owner but other surrounding businesses.  One business owner even remarked that signs can Sign reg 4be dangerous. She’s on a 50 mph stretch of Route 103 and her sign is so small that people have to slow down considerably to read it, creating a traffic hazard.

So what will improve the sign regulations?  Sign regulations need to be fair and reasonable. But fair and reasonable does not mean that one size fits all. That business within a 50 mph speed zone needs signage that is much larger than one in a 25 mph zone. A business with 300 feet of frontage certainly could use more signs than one with 30 feet.  And a business that is on a winding and wooded curve could certainly benefit from a sign larger than 2-square-feet.

While it wasn’t brought up during this first meeting, expect the Planning Commission to take up the issue of sandwich boards and flags as well as public art, issues that need to be resolved to the benefit of the businesses and the public.

Michael Normyle, the town zoning administrator who enforces the sign regulations, has said the Select Board and town manager want the regulations to give him a stronger enforcement arm. That would be fine. But only after reasonable, fair and satisfactory regulations are in place.

We hope these issues will be worked on in the process. But it won’t be easy.

There is still a ways to go and Planning Commission meetings are open to the public for comment. The next Planning Commission meeting is at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 15 at Town Hall, 556 Elm St.

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Filed Under: CommentaryTelegraph Editorial

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. Michael says:

    BRAVO!! Well said Barre. My post will be much shorter as Barre has summed it all up. It’s hard enough to be a small business owner. Embracing small business for a small VT town is important. Helping and promoting small business is CRUCIAL!

  2. Barre Pinske says:

    Cynthia,
    Thank you for your editorial.

    As an artist and business owner who had been represented by the ACLU three times, I know first-hand that a town does not want to go down the road of trying to define a piece of art from a sign.

    The First Amendment is a much bigger deal than a sign ordinance. I’m my opinion, much of the planning going on in Chester is a little like worrying about the color to paint the house when the roof is falling in.

    We need planning on how to get more quality and stable business to open here. Art- and craft-based occupations in our historic structures, for instance, can help us become more of  a destination. We live in a place where dividing an historic home into apartments, many of which are occupied with non-income earning people, is a current business model.

    This model burdens those who rely on local support for their businesses to survive because residents don’t have money to spend. It does nothing for tourism either since there is nothing to see but people on porch! You can plan zoning, signs, what-ever you want.

    But what really matters is a plan for stability and growth just like any business. Today a town is like a business. It needs to be managed. We need people who make money to move here and people who have money to shop here.  Many towns have town planners for that specific purpose.

    At a Select Board meeting I attended last year, I suggested that we invite artisans to our town for an open house promoting the value of Route 103.  Select Board member Tom Bock said (paraphrasing) that he was unsure of the value of Route 103 for business! There are millions — possibly billions — of dollars driving through our town on Route 103. It’s like a river of fish.

    We have a captian of our ship saying there may be no fish there for us. If comminity leaders don’t have enough sense to fish were the fish are and to promote our biggest asset, we have a problem.

    Do we see business failing on 103? Yes, they don’t know how to catch the fish. But don’t blame the fish.  There are people out there who could benefit from what we have who don’t know about our town. How would they?

    I would like to suggest forgetting about making more rules until you need them. I’d like to see more effort put into courting people who can help the team, not into changing the uniforms.

    In my seven years here, I see a problem in how we relate to tourism and to flatlanders. That has to change. They have money and we need it.

    If we can get cool shops to open, we will become a destination. It’s simple. We could and should be one of the most successful towns in Vermont with the money passing by our doors. I feel strongly we can do that without compromising Chester as a unique, interesting and hard working town.