ORC votes to grandfather existing digital signs

DIGITAL SIGNS are one component of the proposed Sign Ordinance that will receive a public hearing Monday, Feb. 25, starting at 6 p.m. (De Busk Photo)

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

NAPLES — The proposed Sign Ordinance for the town of Naples has evolved rapidly and it could change again before it is voted on either at Annual Town Meeting on April 30 or at the ballot box during the May election.

This month, on Feb. 25, the proposed Sign Ordinance will have a public hearing. The meeting falls on a Monday and starts at 6 p.m. A copy of the proposed ordinance is available on the town website.

One major change is the establishment of grandfather rights. All existing signs will be grandfathered-in. All new signs will have to adhere to the ordinance — if it is passed by residents.

Another detail of the proposed sign ordinance will be that digital signs must be turned off after 10 p.m.

Something new in the ordinance is the Causeway Overlay District, which starts where the amphitheater is (on the west side of the Bob Neault Memorial Bridge). On the Long Lake side of the Causeway, the overlay district ends at the Dairy Bar and on the other side, the district extends to the fire station.

The Ordinance Review Committee — which has been working on the ordinance for more than two years —invited local business owners to meetings on Jan. 30 and Feb. 6. To ensure that everybody was aware of the meetings, Naples Code Enforcement Officer (CEO) Renee Carter personally called the proprietors of businesses in the Village District.

The ORC paused in its editing of the proposed sign ordinance “so we could discuss it with the businesses,” Carter said.

Last year, at the Naples Town Meeting, the proposed sign ordinance was voted down so it has been a case of back-to-the-drawing-board for the ORC.

On Jan. 30, between 15 and 20 people showed up at the Naples Town Hall to discuss the grandfathering clause on electronic signs in the Village District.

The ORC’s meeting had the objective of getting feedback from business-owners in order to wrap up an ordinance that will be more likely to gain the support of the voters in the future.

ORC member Russ Sweet summed up the general attitude of Naples residents about digital signs.

“If you took everyone in this town and voted today, ‘Should we have electronic signs in the village district?’ it would lose. The town would vote it down. That has to be reflected in how we write an ordinance. That cannot be ignored,” he said. “There is huge amount of emotional response to the signs in this town.”

The responses of business-owners were frustration in having invested in digital signs that might need to be removed or changed in five years. They said the LED signs attracted customers so to remove the signs would be financial loss on two levels: a sign that had been an investment and also potential customers.

Naples resident and businessman Dan Lajoie said the best bet was to grandfather everything that is existing and make new business-owners abide by new sign ordinance.

“The people have been here a long time —why don’t you grandfather the people who are already here,” Lajoie said.

Ultimately, the ORC did decide to give grandfather rights to all existing signs, according to ORC Chairman Skip Meeker. The signs stay until the business changes hands or there is a change of use for the business, he said.

The responses from businessmen were heated from the get go.

Jim Davenport, the president and owner of Long Lake Marina, argued about the legality of down-sizing the digital sign he purchased in 2011 when the size of type of sign was legal by the town’s standards.

“It is a cost to a business to reduce the sign,” he said.

Gary Skellett, of Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern, purchased his digital sign three weeks ago.

Skellett said, “I can prove it generates revenue for my business. I asked for permission, got the permits, the whole nine yards and the next thing” that happens is the possibility of an ordinance that would require removing the sign in five years. 

“I can see lawsuits coming down the pike,” Skellett said.

People gave their take on grandfathering rights, which was part of the proposed sign ordinance a few weeks ago.  

ORC member Kevin Rogers spoke.

“The sunset clause is for the birds. What we are doing is trying to erase the past,” he said, adding it was unfair “to suddenly put this burden on people who have the signs.”

Jim Grattelo, the chairman of the Naples Board of Selectmen, attended the meeting.

“Just so everyone is clear, the sunset clause came from me,” Grattelo said. “We cannot take Naples from one place to another without changing something. If you want digital signs everywhere, we do nothing and we don’t have a sunset clause, it is going to look like crap.”

“Does it draw attention to your business? Of course it does. There has to be a happy medium. If we want to protect this quaint area . . . we need to do something, we need to have a goal,” Grattelo said.

He reiterated what Russ Sweet had said.

The sign ordinance needs to appeal to both the 200 people at town meeting as well as the 25 people who have signs for their businesses located in the Village District, Grattelo said.

He shifted to the topic of making the transition more digestible for the business owners.

“The town is exploring the cost of reimbursing you for a sign that you have to replace five years from now,” Grattelo said, stressing that businesses would not be paid for ‘lost revenue’ from sign replacement.

“When Kennebunkport and Freeport did this, they set aside money to help with businesses. If taxpayers want this, then this is what it is going to cost you,” he said.

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