Bad signs: Town revamping ordinances (Sept., 11, 2008)

Sept. 11, 2008
By Tim Simard
Observer staff

Call it a sign of simplification.

Planning Director and Zoning Administrator Ken Belliveau, who took over the job last month, is looking to make sign compliance easier for business owners and town staff.

“Almost everywhere I’ve worked, signs can become the bane of a planning department’s existence,” Belliveau said.


    Observer photo by Greg Duggan
Town bylaws prohibit signs like this one on Route 2, but 1-800-GOT-JUNK owner Aaron Fastman says the signs generate the majority of his company’s business.

Belliveau said sign violations occur constantly, but the planning department has neither the time nor the staff to constantly enforce signage problems. That’s why Belliveau said he wants to have discussions with business owners on what’s allowed and what isn’t according to town sign laws.

“I want to spend as little time as possible brow-beating,” he said. “I want to make it easy for people to comply with the law.”

Mal Parker, the owner of the Superstore in Blair Park, said that while the sign laws in Williston are “restrictive,” the laws are similar in other towns. He said his store always tries to stay within the law and the town respects that.

“(Williston is) clearly more business friendly than other towns in the state,” he said.

Aaron Fastman, owner and operator of the local 1-800-GOT-JUNK franchise, said the waste clean-up company generates the bulk of its business from small signs posted close to the ground, and they are too important to not be posted. He believes the signs are small enough to not cause problems for people.

“We have 30,000 commuters a day driving by our office, so those signs are very important to us,” he said.

Everywhere a sign

Belliveau said on a recent drive through Williston he found many violations, especially in the area around the Route 2 and Industrial Avenue intersection in a place he called “rough around the edges.”

He said there were signs too close to the road in the right-of-way, as well as in the line-of-sight for vehicles. Belliveau said the right-of-way generally runs about 10 to 15 feet on either side of a road, where drainage pipes and utilities are buried under the ground.

Fastman, whose 1-800-GOT-JUNK office is located near the intersection, said town staffers come by “every couple weeks” to take down his blue and white signs, which advertises the international company’s phone number.

“We kind of just put them back up again,” Fastman said.

Belliveau said the planning office would be working to bring businesses into compliance in the coming weeks or months. He said if signs were found to be in violation, Belliveau and his staff would be talking with the owners on how to bring the business into compliance.

However, if the sign violations continue, the office would have to take action.

Businesses would be fined $100 a day until the issue is cleared up, Belliveau said. If the same business was found out of compliance again within six months of the original violation, the fine is upped to $150 a day.

The planning staff is working under the sign laws of a portion of the bylaws that have yet to be revised. Former Town Planner Lee Nellis is working on them on a contractual basis from his home in Wisconsin and Belliveau said he hopes to see the new sign bylaws sometime in October.

Belliveau expects some changes, although he is not sure what they will be and said he doesn’t expect any to be “groundbreaking.”

Belliveau also said he would like to simplify the application process for sandwich board, or A-frame, signs. Currently, sandwich board signs have to be approved by not only the town planning office, but the police chief and fire chief as well.

Sandwich boards have to be approved in a similar process as approving events with large signs and tents. They can be displayed for 120 days during the year. Belliveau said he’s been talking with fire and police officials on how to better “streamline” the process.

Belliveau said the sandwich board approval process became easier after Nellis reduced the application fee from $68 to $10. Application fees for banners and event signs were also reduced to $10.

Business reaction

The Superstore owner Parker said many business owners appreciate town sign ordinances, but sometimes want the laws to bend the rules only for them. It comes with the territory, he said.

“We all want to put up a big sign, but we don’t want anybody else to,” Parker said with a laugh.

Fastman said the company posts signs all over the Champlain Valley, generally for a week at a time in front of a client’s home or business. He said he hasn’t heard of any complaints from residents and he would hope the town would notify him about any violations before a fine was enacted.

“A little sign isn’t going to hurt anyone,” Fastman said.

For the immediate future, Belliveau and his staff will enforce sign violations on a complaint-only basis. Belliveau said his primary motivation is to educate business owners on what is allowed.

“We want all business owners in Williston to prosper, but we also want them to be in compliance as well,” he said.