Seven Damariscotta residents and business owners attended a public hearing to give input on a proposed stand-alone sign ordinance Monday, March 7.
The Damariscotta Planning Board has been in the process of drafting the new ordinance since October 2015.
Currently, Damariscotta’s sign regulations are embedded in both the shoreland zoning ordinance, which includes the downtown, and the site plan review ordinance.
The new ordinance, now in its 12th draft, is a result of multiple meetings and workshops, as well as input from Town Manager Matt Lutkus. The eight-page ordinance sets limitations for use of electronically changeable signs, and all permanent signs would require a permit from the code enforcement officer.
During the public hearing, Elm Street resident Bruce Rockwood expressed concern about the amount of “light pollution” the lit signs would give off during the evening hours.
“It says that signs shall be turned down 50 percent of its daytime light between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., but why not make that 100 percent?” Rockwood said. “People living near the commercial districts could have problems getting to sleep, and it would be nice to have all the signs off during the night. It’s critical to the character of the community.”
Planning board member Bruce Garren said the 50 percent dimming was a compromise with business owners stemming from a discussion in a previous meeting.
Wilder Hunt, another member of the planning board, asked if Rockwood could define light pollution.
“It’s one of those things I know it when I see it,” Rockwood said. “I like to think if you’re living in downtown Damariscotta, you should be able to go outside and see the stars at night.”
Hunt said without a way to quantify light pollution, the ordinance would not be able to be enforced.
“We can see and quantify if a light has been turned down 10, 25, 50 percent,” Hunt said. “We would need a way to measure it in order to enforce the ordinance.”
Damariscotta Hardware owner Rob Gardiner asked if the 50 percent dimming applied to signs that were internally or externally lit.
“A lot of the internally lit, fluorescent signs are either on or off, they do not support any dimming,” Gardiner said. “I think it would be problematic to require that.”
Garren said the dimming requirement should only apply to electronically changeable signs and not to signs that are internally or externally lit.
Electronically changeable signs are only allowed in the commercial C-2 zone, which excludes the downtown area. Damariscotta Hardware is in the C-2 zone.
Attendees also discussed the use of inflatable signs, which are prohibited under the current ordinance.
Gardiner asked if such signs had been a problem.
Planning board member Shari Sage said prohibiting the inflatable signs is about preserving the ambiance and character of the town.
The board added an amendment to the ordinance that would allow a business in the commercial C-2 zone to have an inflatable sign for a temporary, regulated amount of time as long as it followed setback requirements and was approved by the code enforcement officer.
One of the biggest compromises between the board and the business owners concerned the allowed size of electronically changeable signs. In the proposed ordinance, electronically changeable signs were regulated to being 24 square feet or less. Gardiner said 32 square feet is considered the industry standard for signs that can be modified electronically for retail operations.
Garren said the board had previously heard that both 24-square-foot and 32-square-foot signs could be considered the industry standard. The board decided to write 24 into the ordinance based on responses from the public at previous discussions.
“There are some in town who don’t want any electronically changeable signs, and so we decided to go with the lower of the industry standards,” Garren said. “I think we’ll find 24 square feet is fine, and if not, we can change it to 32 later. I think it’s a good compromise.”
Maine-ly Pawn owner Mark Hoffman said he felt it was “utterly ridiculous” the ordinance would have people reduce the size of their signs because of available technology.
“Personally, I’m not going to have any of these signs, but to ask Rob or anyone to limit the size of their signs because of digital or LED or anything doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Hoffman said.
A compromise was suggested in which businesses could have 32-square-foot digitally changeable signs, but only utilize 75 percent, or 24 square feet, of the display.
“If we see down the line that this is working out, we can talk amending the ordinance to use the full 32 square feet,” Chairman Jonathan Eaton said.
Gardiner agreed the compromise was favorable.
The planning board approved all the proposed changes to the sign ordinance and will hold another public hearing Monday, April 4.
During the March 7 meeting, the planning board also held public hearings for various zoning changes and corrections of language in ordinances in preparation for the annual town meeting. The board unanimously approved all items with little discussion.