PARIS, Maine — The town has filed a civil lawsuit against Bethel developers and restaurant owners Rick and Ron Savage, accusing the brothers of multiple violations of the municipal sign ordinance.
The alleged violations date to March 14, 2012, and the town is seeking fines of up to $2,500 per day per violation, as provided by municipal ordinance.
The brothers both acknowledged to the Sun Journal on Tuesday that they have recently posted temporary signs directing motorists to their restaurant — the Black Diamond Steakhouse on the Sunday River Road — but only because the town is not acting fast enough to erect the signs.
They denied violating any other municipal sign ordinance.
Last month, at the annual town meeting, voters approved new standards for directional roadside signs to help motorists find businesses and services. According to Ron Savage, after that vote, he called the town office to get a permit for a directional sign to point drivers to the restaurant, but was told the permits hadn’t been written yet.
“That was three weeks ago,” he said, “and they don’t even have a permit written up.” So, he said, “we put our signs up early.”
He said his business can’t wait for the town. “This is the summer season,” Savage said. “Do you know when they’re going to have these signs ready? October.”
More than that, Ron and Rick Savage both said they believe certain town officials are dragging their feet in readying directional signs for the Black Diamond Restaurant in retaliation for Rick Savage filing a federal lawsuit against the town, claiming wrongful arrest and violation of his First Amendment right of free speech.
Bethel Town Manager Jim Doar denies the lawsuit is retaliatory. “We’re not seeking to put them out of business,” he said. “We want to see them in compliance and remain in compliance. That’s been our goal the entire time.”
He said the Savage brothers were first presented with a draft of the compliant, filed in 11th District Court in Rumford, in February so they knew the town was serious about pursuing legal action, but Doar said the town’s patience with the brothers has been ineffective. The lawsuit “is the only thing getting their attention, which is sad,” he said.
He also said that a permit system for directional signs is in place, but the town hasn’t selected a contractor who will design the signs so no permits are being issued yet. A decision on a contractor will be made July 15.
The conflict over the town’s sign ordinance has been going on for years.
At a public hearing in May 2012, a number of business owners complained about what they saw as a restrictive ordinance and asked selectmen to overhaul it. At the time, Selectman Don Bennett acknowledged the ordinance was cumbersome and “a terrible drag on business.”
That hearing was prompted when the Savage brothers drafted a petition asking voters if they wanted to abolish the sign ordinance altogether, but no action was taken to amend the ordinance for more than a year, at the recent June 11 town meeting.
A day before that town meeting, Rick Savage filed a federal lawsuit against Doar and Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant for wrongful arrest in connection with an incident outside the Town Office in May 2012. At that time, Savage was arrested after getting into an argument with Peter Mason, the husband of Town Clerk Christen Mason, who was upset because Savage had called their home about the ordinance petition. He was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct and one count of refusing to submit to arrest; the charges were dismissed in November.
The lawsuit filed by the town against the Savages — who are incorporated as Two Brothers LLC — alleges that, among other things, the brothers and business partners “repeatedly violated, and remain in violation of, the town’s sign ordinance” by making unapproved changes to a freestanding sign advertising their businesses without a permit, including changing the size and lettering of the sign.
A permit had been issued by the Planning Board for a smaller 4-by-8-foot double-sided sign, but the brothers augmented the sign last year.
They have also repeatedly placed temporary directional signs in the public right of way, according to the suit, in violation of town code.
In April last year, the town first notified the Savage brothers of a sign violation and after several notices, the Savages removed the signs in January 2013.
Then, in April, they increased the size of their restaurant sign again and placed a temporary directional sign at the intersection of the Sunday River Road and Route 2. Both signs were removed on June 10.
Voters passed the change in the directional sign ordinance June 11 and, on June 15, the Savage brothers erected two temporary directional signs at the approach to the intersection from both directions.
The signs were put up, according to the lawsuit and Ron Savage, after the brothers applied for a permit to do so and were denied. Savage said he was denied only because the permits have not been written, and holds the town responsible for getting that work done.
Bennett, who has been a strong supporter of changes to the sign ordinance, was not aware of the details of the lawsuit but acknowledged that last October selectmen voted to pursue legal enforcement of sign violations as a general policy, and authorized the town manager to do so.
But, Bennett said Tuesday, specific defendants were never discussed and no specific lawsuit has ever been considered by the board in the context “of a just-passed new sign ordinance that needs to get implemented and worked on.”
Bennett said he understands town employees are working on a process to implement changes to the sign ordinance but acknowledged that “not a lot has been done” since the June 11 vote.
“You’ve obviously got some people out there, and I don’t blame them, they’re running a business and they’re anxious to have something to help them. They like to have the signs up,” he said. On the other hand, town officials need time to implement the process, get signs ordered and the permit process organized.
“So,” Bennett said, “what do you do? If you’re on the command and control end, that’s six to eight weeks you’re looking at. If you’re on the business end, you’re saying ‘what the hell, I need some help here.’”
Bennett said businesses and town officials are in a kind of a “no man’s land,” but, he said, “let’s not get too darned excited and see if we can’t work together to make something happen as fast as we can possibly make it happen.”
The District Court action seeks an order forcing the Savage brothers to bring their signs into compliance with municipal code, seek a permit for new signs or seek a permit to amend existing signs.
The brothers, doing business as Black Diamond Steakhouse and Last Trax Pub, were served with the lawsuit Monday. According to court clerks, the paperwork had not yet been recorded on Tuesday.
The brothers have been summoned to appear in Rumford District Court on Thursday, Aug. 8.