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Jim Kenyon: With the West Lebanon liquor store sign, the message is clear

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 9/21/2019 10:27:21 PM
Modified: 9/21/2019 10:27:19 PM

The newfangled New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlet that opened earlier this month off Route 12A in West Lebanon is hard to miss.

A double-sided sign hovers 20 feet above 12A at the entrance to Weathervane Drive. A pair of circular “Outlet” signs bearing the New Hampshire Liquor Commission’s logo hang over the store’s post-and-beam front doorway.

And just in case any shoppers aren’t sure they’ve arrived at the newest jewel in the crown for the state’s liquor kingdom, the Liquor Commission has erected a giant sign that runs nearly the length of the 19,000-square-foot store’s roof. It — the sign, not the roof — even lights up at night.

The signs help the Liquor Commission “make its presence known, so it can maximize its revenue,” E.J. Powers, the commission’s marketing consultant, told me. “We are a retailer, and we want to draw people to our location.”

I guess anything that boosts sales of 25-year-old Balvenie single-malt Scotch at $600 a bottle is worth it.

Just one problem: The Liquor Commission’s signage violates Lebanon’s zoning ordinance.

City regulations don’t cap the number of signs that a business can have. But the ordinance limits the total amount of square footage that a building’s signs can occupy. The limits are based on the size of the building.

Tim Corwin, Lebanon’s zoning administrator and senior planner, was kind enough to calculate the liquor store’s signage for me.

Under city regulations, the store is entitled to 147 square feet of signage. According to documents filed at City Hall, however, the signs take up 911 square feet. That’s more than six times what’s allowed for the size of the building.

So what does Lebanon plan to do about the infraction?

Nothing. The city is powerless.

Under a New Hampshire statute that dates back to 1996, the liquor store’s signs fall into the category of “governmental use of property.” Therefore, they’re exempt from local land use regulations.

In other words, the Liquor Commission can do as it pleases, even though its stores essentially operate like any other retail business.

“As a planner, it’s frustrating,” Corwin told me. “We work to apply regulations uniformly and fairly.”

But state statute trumps Lebanon’s zoning ordinance. “We’re prevented from regulating the (Liquor Commission’s) signs,” Corwin said.

Not that Lebanon didn’t try, but the city’s lawyer confirmed Corwin’s suspicions.

“The way the statute is written, we don’t have a choice,” Corwin said.

The Liquor Commission has high hopes for West Lebanon. Close to two interstate highways and just across the border from Vermont, the new store can serve as a magnet for travelers in search of tax-free booze.

The store is expected to generate $16 million in annual sales, which would catapult it into the top 10 statewide. In the first week, sales were up 11.8% from the Liquor Commission’s old store in the Powerhouse Plaza, Powers said.

Who knew having a roof sign could make such a difference?

Just don’t expect many private businesses to follow the Liquor Commission’s lead. Lebanon’s zoning ordinance prohibits roof signs.

“If this was any other tenant on 12A, the (Liquor Commission) would have had to apply for a variance from the Zoning Board and it would have been extremely difficult to get,” Corwin said.

That makes sense. Roof signs are big and ugly. (I know what you’re thinking: When did aesthetics become a consideration on 12A?)

Apparently, the Liquor Commission was worried, however, that without the roof sign, the new West Lebanon mega-store might go unnoticed from the strip.

Why does it matter that the Liquor Commission can ignore a city ordinance?

Over the years, Lebanon has put a lot of time, energy and thought into crafting — and revising — its 169-page zoning ordinance.

Some people — developers, mostly — argue that parts of the ordinance are too strict and not business-friendly enough. But it’s still a product of democracy in action.

Voters who went to the polls have had a say in the passage of some portions of the document. The people’s representatives — the nine city councilors — have approved it.

The Liquor Commission — thanks to the Legislature — can run roughshod over the will of the people.

“It’s not a good example for the state to be setting,” City Councilor Clifton Below, a former legislator, said when I called him last week. “It’s also not very neighborly.”

He’s right. I’m sure other businesses would like more signage to peddle their wares. But they must play by Lebanon’s rules or risk the repercussions. Meanwhile, the same rules don’t apply to the state.

Powers, executive vice president of Montagne Communications in Manchester, didn’t quite see it that way. The Liquor Commission is not acting above the law, he said.

“They are exempt,” he reminded me.

I might have an easier time accepting the argument that the commission is only doing what the Legislature has given it the authority to do, if not for the roof sign.

There’s no need for it. Even when the sign is lit up at night, the store isn’t visible from 12A. Several tall trees stand in the way.

“I think it’s there so people can see the store when they’re across the river in Vermont,” Below said.

Of course, he was only making a joke — just like the state does of any local regulations that it wants to bigfoot.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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