MACHIAS, Maine — Machias town officials, galled by their lack of local control in dealing with two recent issues concerning sidewalks and electronic signs, are forming an Ordinance Committee to take back a bit of power from the state.
Machias currently has a handful of ordinances — some dating back to the 1950s — and Town Manager Chris Loughlin said it is important for residents to know that any ordinances the committee recommends will not restrict local growth or development, but rather will protect the community. Local ordinances cannot be more lenient than state law, but can be more restrictive.
“It’s important to have local control,” Loughlin said Monday. “Otherwise the state gets to be the arbitrator on what should be local disputes.”
Twice in August, Maine Department of Transportation officials came to town and overrode the board’s wishes, citing state policies.
One instance involved the placement of a handicapped access ramp at a Route 1 business downtown. The selectmen believed they had the power to determine what went on top of the sidewalk because the town installed the walkway and maintains it. MDOT owns the land under the sidewalk, however, and because the town only has a right of way, MDOT makes final determinations regarding the walkway.
The second instance involved flashing digital advertising signs at three local businesses. A resident complained to the MDOT about the signs, saying she felt they were a driving distraction. The signs are located at Rite-Aid, Tru Value Hardware Store and The It Store. They scroll digital messages on a lighted screen. MDOT has a regulation that each message on electronic signs has a minimum display duration of 20 minutes. Time and temperature signs are exempt.
In both cases, Loughlin said Monday, if local ordinances had been in place, the town would have had the final say.
Steve Pineo of Tru Value — one of the businesses whose sign was in violation — wrote to the Machias selectmen after MDOT ordered him to adjust his sign’s rotation time, saying that the MDOT policy “handcuffs” his business. Pineo said that in today’s economy, businesses need to use every method at their disposal to increase and sustain their businesses. “Whatever happened to driver responsibility? What has happened to the use of common sense?” he wrote.
Selectman Cony Upton, who also works at Tru Value, said, “I’m tired of the state dictating to us what we can and can’t do in our town,” and backed the creation of an Ordinance Committee.
“We have to get local control. This is our town, not theirs,” Selectman Warren Gay said Saturday referring to MDOT. “The state needs to stop telling us what to do. These types of decisions are up to us and I think we are doing a good job of it.”
Gay said that some of the ordinances that the committee will review include sign and sidewalk requirements, an ordinance to deal with dangerous and dilapidated buildings, and an ordinance preventing the establishment of adult bookstores or clubs. “Machias is not the place for stuff like that,” he said of the latter.
Loughlin said no one has approached town officials about an ordinance banning fireworks.
“Many towns took a ‘let’s see’ approach about local fireworks control,” he said. “We haven’t had any problems.”
Loughlin said there are some ordinances that have been on the town books for more than 60 years and they will all need review. A committee is expected to be appointed at the board’s Wednesday, Sept. 12, meeting.
The committee will be charged with thoroughly reviewing all current and proposed ordinances. The panel’s recommendations will then be presented at the annual town meeting next June or at a special town meeting on an earlier date. Loughlin said that ordinances that affect sidewalks, roads or rights of way can be enacted by the selectmen without a public vote but that all other proposals will go before town voters.
“It is very important for the people of Machias to have the final say on this,” Gay said.
“I’d rather have people in town telling us what they want here rather than DOT,” Loughlin said.