Open flags shot down

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MANCHESTER — The Select Board approved several amendments to the town's sign ordinance Tuesday, but allowing merchants to display "open" flags was not among them.

Instead, that often contentious component of a set of proposed changes will return to the Planning Commission for more discussion and review.

The select board had been presented with two versions of the sign ordinance changes following the planning commission's public hearing that concluded in September. One version of the proposed amended ordinance would have allowed for a one year experiment with the open flags, with a sunset clause terminating the legal use of them on Dec. 31, 2016. This version would have allowed merchants the option of displaying either two "open" signs, or an "open" flag, which could measure no more than six square feet. A second version of the sign ordinance excluded any reference to "open" flags, permitting businesses to only display the two "open" signs. Currently, "open" flags are not permitted under the town's existing sign ordinance. The planning commission opted to send both versions along to the select board for its final decision, to give the select board the flexibility to pick one or the other.

However, after nearly an hour-long discussion about the merits of open flags and the three other changes proposed to the sign ordinance — which pertained to signs announcing business specials or sales, construction project signs and residential signs — the select board deadlocked 2-2 on a motion that would have approved the version that excluded allowing open flags. Board members Wayne Bell and Lisa Souls voted for this motion, with board chairman Ivan Beattie and member Steve Nichols opposed.

That in effect defeated the motion, which meant all the proposed changes — not just the rejection of the open flags — were also disallowed. Only four of the five members of the select board were available to vote at Tuesdays's meeting — Carol Lattuga, the fifth member, was not present at the meeting.

That set off another extended discussion over whether, under Robert's Rules of Order, the board could reconsider that motion and how the other changes, excepting the open flags, could be preserved.

Eventually, that is what the select board did — in a second vote, the board approved the version which excluded reference to the open flags by a 3-1 margin, with Beattie changing his vote to form a majority. The select board then referred the issue back to the planning commission for further study and discussion.

The planning commision next meets on Monday, Nov. 23, but already has a full agenda to consider at that meeting with a public hearing on the town's comprehensive land use and development regulations, and won't have the time to reconsider the open flag question again until a subsequent meeting, perhaps in December, said Zoning Administrator Janet Hurley on Wednesday. The outcome of the decision on the open flags left business owner Andrew Weill feeling frustrated, he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

"It's very clear to me that Manchester is not small business-friendly," he said. "Manchester does not care about small mom-and-pop shops — if they did they would listen to what some of the small business owners are saying."

However, he plans to continue lobbying town officials to carve out a provision allowing open flags, he said.

The debate over whether to permit open flags dominated the discussion over the sign ordinances before the select board closed the public hearing and began voting. Brad Myerson, a longtime critic of allowing open flags, said there was a good reason they hadn't been allowed before, since they added to an already large number of street signs and caused "visual clutter," he said.

"Open flags are not a good idea; they don't look good," Myerson said during Tuesday's meeting. "You wind up with a hodge-podge of different kinds of signs," adding that they also posed an enforcement issue and there was no compelling reason — economic or otherwise — to change the restriction on them now.

Weill countered with an observation that not all businesses enjoy a level playing field when it comes to visibility, location or deep financial pockets.

If Myerson's concern that allowing open flags would lead to an unsightly profusion of them proved accurate, the sunset clause would eliminate them at the end of 2016, he said.

The sunset clause could be undone, should community and official sentiment be that the open flags had been successful, but that would have required a formal action, Town Manager John O'Keefe said later in the meeting. Some businesses need more visibility than others, depending on where they are located and how dependent they are on pedestrian foot traffic, Weill said.

"Not all retail spaces are created equal, but the tax code is," he said. "You need something to draw people to your store — they want to know right away if you're open."

Amy Herrmann, another local businessowner, said that the way people shopped had changed with the arrival of smartphones and large online merchants like Amazon who offer fast delivery of goods purchased over the Internet.

"We need to do what we can to get people to come into our stores and do those impulse buys that aren't so easy anymore," she said.

But Myerson maintained that the proposed open flags were efectively "attention-getting devices" which had never been allowed before.

"You have to look at the benefit of the town as a whole," he said. "It shouldn't burden the town for the benefit of a few merchants."

With their action Tuesday, the select board's approval of the sign ordinance changes advanced by the planning commission — minus the open flags — clears the way for them to take effect within three weeks barring an appeal.


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