City Council approves sign ordinance

LACONIA — Following a public hearing the City Council last night voted unanimously to enact an ordinance regulating the operation and location of electronic signs throughout the city.
Councilor Henry Lipman (Ward 3) acknowledged the concern of some business owners that the ordinance was unnecessarily restrictive, but feared if the council sought to amend it, it would only further put off the day when firms eager to erect signs could do so.
As proposed by the Zoning Task Force and endorsed by the Planning Board, the ordinance distinguishes 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 is permitted in the six residential districts. Where they are permitted, the dimensions and heights of signs must 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 are confined to the commercial resort district, which includes The Weirs, and permitted there only by special exception.
EMC-static display signs are 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 cannot change more frequently than every five minutes.
Suzanne Perley, who chaired the task force, said that seven of the 13 cities — Claremont, Concord, Dover, Franklin, Keene, Lebanon and Portsmouth — in the state prohibit EMCs altogether, three — Manchester, Nashua and Somersworth — permit them, and they are unregulated in Berlin and Rochester.

Several members of the business community spoke against the proposed ordinance, challenging the the requirement for a special exception and the frequency at which messaging can change.

Longtime real estate broker Steve Weeks, who served on the Zoning Task Force, repeated his concern that requiring a special exception for all EMCs placed an unnecessary additional expense and regulatory burden on the applicant. He pointed out that while the current ordinance restricts the districts where EMCs can be placed, it permits them by right, without requiring a special exception. Likewise, Weeks told council that the messages on EMCs should be allowed to change more frequently than every five minutes, which "is just way too long." He proposed a frequency of every 30 seconds.
Jeff Flanders of the Byse Agency Inc., which is in the professional district on Union Avenue, said he has been seeking to erect an EMC for three years. While he welcomed the recommendation to permit electronic signs in the professional district, he echoed Weeks in challenging the need for a special exception.

Brian Gilbert of Gilbert Block on Route 107, who invested $35,000 in an EMC, objected to the five minute limit on messaging.

"These rules aren't allowing anybody to get the best bang for their buck out of their signs," he said. He suggested that "some people have an agenda not to see business succeed in this town" and recalled one business owner told him "'if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't spend a penny here.' It's a tough town to do business in," Gilbert remarked.

On the other hand, Michael Foote, a member of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which grants special exceptions, and the Zoning Task Force, urged the council to adopt the ordinance as proposed. He said that the special exception provided the ZBA with an opportunity to review the proposed sign and did not represent an onerous burden. He said that the task force did not want "to turn Laconia into Las Vegas with flashing lights everywhere."

"Laconia will never be Las Vegas," countered Gilbert. "It'll be lucky not to be taken over by Tilton."