Lebanon Weighs Sign Ordinance

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 09, 2018

West Lebanon — Long banned in Lebanon, electronic signs soon could begin popping up along Route 12A if the City Council votes next week to adopt new sign regulations.

The proposed rules, which largely update Lebanon’s existing sign ordinance, include an optional provision that would allow businesses with frontage on the heavily traveled thoroughfare to install digital signs.

The proposal so far has drawn mixed reviews from city officials, and it ultimately will fall on the City Council to determine whether it’s now time to end the ban on electronic signs.

“We think that’s a conversation that needs to be had, and so that’s why we kept the draft proposal in,” Lebanon Zoning Administrator Tim Corwin said on Thursday.

The city began exploring ways to draft a new sign ordinance last year in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits municipalities from regulating signs based on their content.

Last April, the city adopted a temporary ordinance that cut out provisions in conflict with the court decision. It also formed a task force made up of officials, residents and business leaders to draft new rules.

Much of the new regulations, which dictate how many and what type of signs a business or resident can install, were formed through a consensus of task force members, Corwin said. But the group had trouble agreeing on whether Lebanon should begin allowing digital signs.

The city’s prohibition on electronic signs excludes displays of time, temperature and gas prices. However, electronic advertising of sales and services isn’t allowed.

Unsure how to proceed, city officials sought public input in the form of an online survey, which ran from March to April on Lebanon’s website.

More than 63 percent of the 202 respondents support the current ban on electronic signs, they found, with only 34 percent in favor of a repeal.

That sentiment extended to all areas of the city, with residents expressing the most support for digital signs on Route 12A. A little more than 47.5 percent of people said they would accept the signs there.

“Digital signs will be visually offensive, likely be concentrated in areas already looking awful because of the number and junkiness of signage already there and may distract drivers from the road,” one respondent wrote to city officials.

“I like the quaint and homey feel of our town. I don’t think it should be lit up like a big city,” wrote another.

The Lebanon Planning Board also discussed the electronic sign proposal over two meetings this summer and voted to unanimously oppose the measure, Corwin said.

“I think that people felt that once the door was open that we couldn’t close it,” Planning Board member Joan Monroe said on Thursday.

With electronic signs allowed on Route 12A, planners were concerned that businesses elsewhere eventually would be asking for them, leading to a total repeal of the sign ban, she said.

Monroe also said the city should hold off a debate on electronic signs until they’ve become common elsewhere, and residents have a better chance to see them in action.

“I felt that we could wait,” she said. “This was not something that was so urgent that we had to do it.”

Laurel Stavis, another Planning Board member, said she couldn’t support the city’s sign proposal because it only targeted one portion of Lebanon.

“Lebanon is one city and to make allowances for one kind of activity in one part of the city while preventing them in other parts of the city didn’t seem to make sense to me and to many of the other Planning Board members,” she said in a phone interview.

But business owners contend that allowing digital signs could replace some old and outdated advertising in West Lebanon, while also giving local businesses a competitive edge.

“My opinion is that in some areas of the city, and certainly 12A is one of them, these types of signs have to be permitted,” said Curt Jacques, the owner of West Lebanon Feed and Supply and a former member of the sign task force.

Traditional brick and mortar stores are struggling to compete with online vendors, he said, adding the signs could be an advantage to attract business during sales and events.

With less maintenance needed, electronic signs also could be more attractive and less labor intensive, said Jacques, a former chairman of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce.

Employees at West Lebanon Feed and Supply maintain the lettering on its sign three times a week, which requires a forklift to access, he said. While the company is willing to spend the time caring for its sign, Jacques said, others aren’t as committed.

“It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and we could do it in a safer way, if we were allowed to do it electronically,” Jacques said.

He also dismissed the notion that electronic signs will be too distracting, saying the city can regulate how bright and at what times retailers can advertise.

The Lebanon City Council will discuss the city’s proposed sign regulations at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at City Hall.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.