Council Mulls Sign Ordinance

LACONIA — The City Council divided 4-2 last night in voting to schedule a public hearing on the sign ordinance recommended by the Planning Board. The public hearing will held at next regularly scheduled meeting of the council on May 27, at which the council could either adopt or amend the proposed ordinance.

As proposed by the Zoning Task Force and endorsed by the Planning Board the ordinance would distinguish between two types of "electronic message center" (EMC) — "static" and "dynamic." Static electronic signs are those on which neither the copy nor pictures change during the message while their dynamic counterparts appear to move or change as they present a stream of images or words that fly in, fade out, rotate and scroll across the face of the sign.

Neither type of electronic sign would be permitted in the six residential districts. Where they are permitted, the dimensions and heights of signs would have to conform to those of free-standing signs in the specific district. Moreover, the electronic portion of the signs must not exceed 75 percent of the total area of the sign, a provision that ensures that all such signs are framed.

EMC-dynamic display signs would be confined to the commercial resort district, which includes The Weirs, and permitted there only by special exception.

EMC-static display signs would be excluded from the downtown riverfront district but permitted in the commercial resort district and permitted by special exception in the professional, business central, business central/industrial, commercial, industrial park, industrial and airport industrial districts. In addition, the display, whether imagery or script, on EMC-static display signs could not change more frequently than every five minutes.

After Suzanne Perley, who chairs the Zoning Task Force, explained the proposal, Steve Weeks, a longtime real estate broker and dissenting member of the task force, challenged two of its major provisions — the requirement for a special exception and the frequency of the changing display. Requiring a special exception, he said is "more bureaucratic red tape" and, since where EMC-static display signs are currently permitted they are permitted by right, is "going backwards instead of forwards."

Special exceptions are granted by the Zoning Board of Adjustment upon finding a request satisfies specific eight criteria and which may attach conditions to its approval. Weeks said the requirement "stiffens the ordinance," making it more difficult for the business owner seeking to erect an an electronic sign.

Likewise, Weeks said that the frequency of five minutes was unnecessarily restrictive, preferring to allow messages to change every 30 seconds or one minute "at the very most." In five minutes a driver traveling at 30 miles-per-hour would cover two-and-a-half miles, he said, while a driver stopped a traffic light would seldom see more than one message.

Planning Director Shanna Saunders said that both the task force and Planning Board placed a premium on preserving "community character" and chose to exercise greater oversight over electronic signage. She said the board sought to avoid what she called the "Las Vegas look." Saunders explained that if a less restrictive ordinance were adopted and subsequently found wanting, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to tighten it. The board, she said, decided "not to make all the changes at once and then be unable to back track."

"I'd rather be a successful Las Vegas than a dead Laconia," Weeks countered, emphasizing that local businesses must not only compete with their counterparts in neighboring communities but also with firms advertising on the internet. "They depend a lot on signs," he continued, explaining they need the opportunity to advertise as many of the goods and services they offer to as many consumers as possible.

Weeks struck a chord with the councilors. Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) urged the council to adopt the ordinance as recommended, and immediately begin the process of amending it. Councilor David Bownes (Ward 2) also appeared open to amending the ordinance as recommended, but suggested the council first hold a public hearing.

Lipman insisted that with the advent of the summer business season the council should adopt the ordinance, which would allow businesses to proceed with their plans for signage and enable the city officials to judge the efficacy of the ordinance. If the ordinance proves too restrictive, he said it could be subsequently be amended.

With Lipman and Councilor Brenda Baer (Ward 4) dissenting and Councilors Ava Doyle (Ward 1), Bob Hamel (Ward 5) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6) joining Bownes his motion to proceed to a public hearing prevailed.

City Manager Scott Myers advised the council that it could vote on the proposed ordinance following the public hearing on May 27. However, if the council chose to substantially amend the proposal, by eliminating the requirement for a special exception or changing the frequency of changing messages, another public hearing would be required before a vote.