Camden to vote on changes to controversial sign ordinance

Posted Oct. 29, 2012, at 7:21 p.m.

CAMDEN, Maine — Voters will be asked to approve changes to the town’s sign ordinance next week that planners believe establish consistency and fairness, while also preserving Camden’s picturesque village atmosphere.

Not everyone agrees it’s a step that needs to be taken, though. Select board member Leonard Lookner, who owns and operates the Waterfront restaurant, believes provisions in the proposed ordinance revision would give businesses too many signs.

The proposal that’s on the Nov. 6 ballot grew from meetings that began last winter, Code Enforcement Officer Steve Wilson said, when the town planning board recommended a working group review the existing ordinance. Some business owners had said the document was too inflexible.

The goal was “to help businesses survive in the economy that we have,” Wilson said, “but also protecting the look and feel of Camden.”

The group, which included some planning board members and business owners, developed some changes, which were aired before the planning board. Other business owners offered feedback, resulting in more tweaks, and finally, revisions were made and approved by the planning board and select board. That document appears on the ballot.

“They got a lot of other ideas that they hadn’t thought about,” Wilson said of the committee that drafted the proposed ordinance changes.

A key provision in the proposal is that downtown businesses still will be allowed a total of three signs, but will have a new option from which to choose. If the revision is approved, businesses will be allowed one changeable sign affixed to the building, which likely would be used to describe a menu or sale.

To establish consistency, the signs must be of the blackboard variety. Under the proposal, the signs can be up to 3 square feet in size, up from the previous limit of 2 square feet.

Another provision in the proposed ordinance is that businesses will be allowed to have one illuminated sign measuring no more than 2 square feet, providing there is no advertising or flashing or changing lights as part of the sign. Typically, such signs will read “open.” A permit from the code enforcement officer will be required for the sign.

Businesses in some zones will be allowed to display one freestanding “A-frame” blackboard sign, provided it is set on private property. Such signs must be approved by code officer.

Home occupations outside the downtown will be allowed signs slightly larger than the current ordinance, Wilson said, up to 6 square feet (an increase from the current from 4 square feet). If the home occupation is on a road with 35 mph or higher speed limit, a second sign can be placed near the road, under the proposal.

Another ordinance change unrelated to signs also is on the ballot. If approved, it will allow businesses that are nonconforming in the zones in which they operate — for example, an existing funeral home in a zoning district that now does not allow such businesses — a one-time expansion of up to 30 percent in the size of the building.

Wilson explained that the businesses seeking an expansion under this provision must gain zoning board of appeals approval. That board may require mitigation, such as screening, he said.

Lookner has been campaigning against the ordinance proposals, arguing on Facebook that the ordinance will allow signs that “will be bigger and more obtrusive.”

Select board members Martin Cates, John French and Donald White urged residents to approve the ordinance changes. “Both changes are designed to allow businesses to increase their presence and still maintain the unique character of Camden,” they wrote in a letter to the editor.

They noted that the Downtown Business Group endorsed the proposals.

The ordinance proposals are posted on the town’s web site at camdenmaine.org.

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