BANGOR, Maine — Most city residents don’t spend much time worrying about the rules and regulations involving electronic signage, but they probably would feel differently if their livelihood depended on it.
Bangor Neon, a local company that offers many different electronic signs for commercial use, has asked the city to consider changing its ordinance to help the business survive.
“The technology has changed and improved greatly over the years,” Gayle Treworgy, who has worked at Bangor Neon since 1974, told Bangor city councilors this week. “But it’s not worth it for a business to invest in [an electronic sign] if it’s too restrictive.”
The biggest issue is how often the displayed content on an electronic sign can be changed. Right now, the state law allows changes every 20 minutes and Bangor’s ordinance mirrors the state law. Bangor Neon is asking the city to consider allowing signs to change much more frequently, perhaps as often as every 8 seconds.
“Every 20 minutes is very limiting,” said Bob White, another Bangor Neon employee who pitched the idea to councilors this week.
Electronic signs have been around for a long time, but in the last few years an increasing number of businesses have made the switch from traditional manual signs primarily because they offer more options. The image of an employee braving low temperatures, the elements and sometimes heights to change the daily specials on a restaurant sign is antiquated. Now, those messages can be controlled by computer software.
But electronic signs are expensive, Treworgy said, and if businesses are going to invest $30,000 to $60,000 for signage, it better be worth it. Joel Hansen, also of Bangor Neon, said a number of Bangor businesspeople already have expressed support for the proposed changes.
Two years ago, city leaders debated this same issue, but the discussion didn’t get very far, largely because of public safety concerns. This time around, the request from Bangor Neon received enough support from members of the city’s transportation and infrastructure committee for them to ask city staff members to prepare a recommendation.
Councilors Geoffrey Gratwick and Hal Wheeler called Bangor Neon’s request reasonable and legitimate. Councilor Rick Bronson also said he would consider supporting changes, but he suggested several restrictions as well, most notably, allowing electronic signage only in commercial zones.
The issue of electronic signage and potential ordinance changes has generated much discussion around the county recently, said City Manager Edward Barrett.
“The biggest concern with allowing signs to change more frequently seems to be driver distraction,” Barrett said, although he admitted there do not appear to be data to support that assertion.
Ordinances now make exceptions for public emergency messages and other public service messages, such as time and temperature signs.
Another concern is aesthetic, he said. The city needs to decide whether it wants to allow signs that flash, scroll rapidly or have overly bright colors.
The city already boasts a number of businesses that have electronic signs and Bangor Code Enforcement Officer Dan Wellington admitted that not all are in compliance all of the time.
“We have had some issues with programming,” Wellington said. “In some situations, signs were set for 20 minutes and then somehow got accelerated. We’ve been told it’s a software issue.”
Whether that explanation is true or not is less relevant than who is going to monitor whether signs are complying with city ordinances.
Wellington said the responsibility technically falls to the code enforcement office, but he also said his staff doesn’t have significant hours to devote to this.
“That’s something that the council would need to acknowledge at some point,” he said. “If a town opts to change from state ordinances, then it becomes the agency of authority, not the state.”
The code enforcement officer said a big sticking point for him would be including a provision that if the software that monitors the signs malfunctions, it can be frozen until the problem is remedied.
“A lot has changed just in two years, so I certainly think it’s appropriate for us to revisit this,” he said.
The transportation and infrastructure committee is expected to discuss the request further in the coming weeks.