Sign panel gives Chester wayfinding a go-ahead of sorts State will work with town to clear final hurtles

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

At its first meeting in more than a year and a half, Vermont’s Travel Information Council considered Chester’s long-waiting request to erect wayfinding signs as a downtown economic development move and gave the plan a partial but enthusiastic approval.

TIC members meet with Chester Town Manager Julie Hance and Patrick Olstad of SE Group (middle and top right) on Monday

The council is administered by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and is made up of members from the Agency of Transportation and those representing business sectors like recreation and agriculture. It also has a hand in making the rules for and administering signage along the state’s roads.

The town began developing a sign plan in 2018, working with several state agencies along the way and completed the final draft in November 2020. According to Town Manager Julie Hance, the first step in building out the wayfinding package is to erect signs that tell motorists there are services and attractions around the Green but those signs needed to be approved and the TIC had not met since July 2019.

In a recent phone interview, council chair John Kessler told The Telegraph that it has been difficult to find and retain members on a panel that meets infrequently especially during the pandemic, but that the group would gather via the internet on May 24 to look at Chester’s plan.

Sign types and scales from the wayfinding plan

The wayfinding plan created by SE Group of Burlington rose out of concerns and complaints that many people who drive through the town on Route 103 never realize that there is a commercial center just to the west on Route 11. These concerns were voiced repeatedly in the Village Center Master Planning process, which was funded by ACCD. There was no TIC meeting on the calendar until after The Telegraph asked ACCD Secretary Lindsay Kurrle about the situation during one of Gov. Scott’s press conferences.

At Monday’s meeting Kessler,  who is general counsel for ACCD, said more than one state statute addresses signage. In this case, he and AOT lawyers had considered one that allows towns participating in the Designated Downtowns program some leeway in using non-standard traffic signs. He noted that Chester is not part of that program, but when the statute was adopted, the Village Center program (which Chester participates in) did not exist. So, the consensus among the state’s lawyers was that such leeway could be extended to the other such programs administered by ACCD and under that law, the council can only object to the signage if there are safety concerns.

A map from the wayfinding plan outlines the village center boundary in a black and white dotted line

Kessler praised the town as a “very engaged” designated Village Center, noting that the town had invited a number of ACCD and AOT officials to a meeting several years ago as these ideas were being discussed.

There was one wrinkle however. The rules are only less restrictive inside the designated district, which runs from just east of Lover’s Lane along Route 11 to Maple Street and turning north along Route 103 to Town Hall. While most of the wayfinding signs are within those limits, some are not. Kessler noted that the “welcome” signs are permitted as long as they are out of the right of way and the others might fit under another statute.

Council member Frank Heald – former Town Manager in Ludlow – noted that the Stone Village was outside the Village Center designation but is a part of Chester’s uniqueness.

“I want to find a way to make this work for Chester,” said Heald.

Council member John LaBarge asked if the package within the Village Center could be approved with the state looking for a workaround on the other signs. He added that he was impressed with the classic simplicity of the design. Board member Beth Kennett agreed.

An example of a design for signs

LaBarge then moved to allow the town to go ahead with the signs inside the Village Center while state and town officials look for a legal framework to go forward.

Heald pointed out the importance of the wayfinding plan going forward as a “comprehensive” program with all of the signs in place.

Kessler said that enhancing and bolstering the downtown is in the state’s interest and noted that he could count on one hand the number of wayfinding proposals the council has seen over the years.

In the end, the proposal passed 5-0 on a roll call vote.

“Chester is appreciative of the support from the Travel information Council and their understanding of the value the Wayfinding Plan brings to Chester,” Hance said on Tuesday, “Chester will be moving forward this summer with the installation of four signs directing travelers to the village center.”

Hance also said she would be applying for grants to fund the installation of more signs in the future.

“It’s great news that it finally happened and great for the town to get these signs going,” said select board chair Arne Jonynas who hoped that the state might take a look at the process and find a way to streamline it for the next town that comes along with a sign proposal.

 

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