Vegas-ing up Grafton

gaudette-night2Nighttime. I’m on the strip.

It’s a cold town, this Grafton. Cold as the ice that holds the lake in thrall. Cold as the snow that banks the streets. Cold as the hopes that come here to die at 10 at night, when not a store is open. Cold as the light that flickers through my car windows as I drive down the strip.

O the promises, the broken dreams! I flash back to the room that had held me captive for lo so many hours — it was green, the green they paint cells to soothe prisoners, and it was filled with people talking about lights. There was a lawyer — there’s always a lawyer — who spoke of this scene.

His name was Joseph Antonellis, a hired gun from far-off Milford. The Grafton Suburban Credit Union asked him to take on a tricky bit of business — it seems they looked at the signs of their neighbors and had come to covet what they had. They looked at Gaudette Insurance, with its time and temperature and flickering messages. They looked at Koopman’s Lumber and Fitzy’s Car Wash, just a stone’s throw from their own doors which were, themselves, illuminated by the flickering signs and, yes, they had come to covet.

koopman-nightBut all was not well with these signs. These high-tech beacons with their time and temperature and promises of a quick car wash or a sale on road salt were, in fact, in the wrong. Not in their basic facts — the time and temperature were somewhat accurate to a degree, the sale was in fact happening — but in their legality.

According to the town’s zoning laws, these signs should not exist.

And so the lawyer came before the Board of Selectmen with a proposal: the bank would like a sign, too. But before it would commission this creation, this new beacon beckoning customers to re-finance their mortgages or join the new Christmas Club, it suggested that the town first amend its zoning by-laws to make such signs legal.

Legal! It’s enough to make a person believe a thaw might someday come to this cold landscape.

fitzynight1The Milford man looked to his own town for an example of a sign that would not be allowed in fair Grafton: the flashing monstrosity erected by the Correctional Officers Union (O the nights when my eyes were dazzled by the flash! Correctional officers were injured by inmates! Flash! It’s Girl Scout Cookie time! Flash!). Grafton’s amendment would not allow this frequent message change. It would not allow the scrolling. It would allow a message change every 10 seconds — enough time for a driver to read without distraction.

And Selectmen spoke fondly of their dreams for a simpler Grafton, without these bright signs and down the road, in the dark night broken by dazzling lights, the strip laughed. You do not turn back time. Existing businesses would have to take down their signs, should this not pass; they would have to re-apply should it make its way through Planning Board and Town Meeting.

How will the story end? It’s unknown. This tale will end on a much warmer night in May, in a room heated by packed bodies and overheated emotions.

But that’s a long way away. It’s nighttime. A cold night, filled with lights.

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15 thoughts on “Vegas-ing up Grafton

  1. One argument against having this sort of sign is the light pollution factor. I know that I like being able to see the stars at night, and every source of light, even little ones like this, add to the problem. We may need to talk about “dark sky” ordinance so we don’t end up with our town giving off a radioactive glow.

    There’s also a slippery slope here in that if we allow this type of sign, at some point we end up with one or more of those massive television-like signs (like the one over in Worcester on 122, owned by a real estate office I think ) which truly are a distraction, are an eyesore, and huge sources of light pollution.

  2. So, my question is – why hasn’t the zoning bylaw been enforced? Why have businesses been allowed to put up their messaging signs if we have something on the books that says they are not permitted? I, too, hate the light pollution and think it’s a wasteful use of energy.

  3. It appears the only one that would be grandfathered in is the one at Savers Bank. We really didn’t get a straight answer about how or why the signs were allowed, but apparently Bob Berger contacted the owners about the non-compliance last year and suggested they work on getting the signs made legal.

    I’ve found the Gaudette sign convenient at times — it’s nice to have a sign that’s constantly bringing up local events — but I find the two newer ones overly bright. Not quite as dazzling as the stupid correctional officers one in Milford — that was like Vegas — but still REALLY bright.

  4. I’d love to read more about dark sky ordinances? Are you kidding me? This is Grafton not the Mirage. When is Swirls and Scoops going to Vegas-up itself? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to see the 30 day countdown flashing in orange from the Stop & Shop parking lot?

    http://www.lasvegasmaps.com/stripmap.html

  5. As to why these signs have been allowed, and why the law hasn’t been enforced…

    Bob Berger has interpreted the by law differently than past Zoning Enforcement Officers. The by law reads in part:

    4.4.2.1 Moving Signs Swinging signs, flashing signs, revolving signs, signs consisting of pennants, ribbons, streamers, spinners, strings of light bulbs, revolving beacons, searchlights, animated signs, and signs illuminated to create the illusion of motion are prohibited in all districts.

    The problem now is that Mr. Berger is interpreting the changing messages to be in violation of the cited section above. I think he considers the changing of messages to be “flashing”. That is his perogative – however it is different than his predcessors.

    Under Mr. Berger’s interpretation, the classic time and temperature sign seen across America for decades (i.e. Savers Bank) would not be allowed. I don’t believe that was the intent of the by law. Obviously, others such as Mr. Berger feel differently.

    FWIW, the ZBA issued variances for both Gaudette and Koopman. In the ZBA’s eyes, the electronic signs were allowed as long as they didn’t flash or create the illusion of movement – and it was the responibility of the users to not have flashing messages or the illusion of movement. The variances granted were for size and/or location, not for the movement. In fact, one of the original motions was going to include specific language against flashing, motion or animation, but that language was removed becuase it was redundant with the by law itself.

    The point is, these businesses came to the town for “permission” to have these signs (via the ZBA variance) and were granted that permission. It really doesn’t seem fair to suddenly say you can’t have messages that change periodically.

    By the way, there are other parts of the bylaw that those signs do violate, however, they can be easily rectified in the way the business uses the sign. For example, if the messages are scrolling then the signes should be programmed so they are not. Another example from section 4.4.2:

    No sign may be illuminated more than thirty (30) minutes after closing of any store or business, or thirty (30) minutes after working hours in an industrial building, except signs identifying municipal buildings.

    These signs should be turned off at night. This should be enforced and I don’t know why it isn’t.

  6. Thank you, Bill. Feel free to pop in and clarify any time!

    I was thinking there had to be a difference of interpretation there when the Savers Bank sign was cited as an example (without a time/temperature sign, where else are photographers going to go on hot/cold days to shoot someone eating ice cream/shivering in the cold?). And I didn’t know they were supposed to be turned off at night — I’m assuming you mean “at night” as in after closing?

  7. Actually what I meant is that the signes should be turned off 30 minutes after closing (which means much of the night time, and also all day Sunday for Koopman)

  8. At the risk of sounding like a T&G columnist, it’s beginning to feel like Holden around here!

    What a coincidence the lawyer is from Milford! There’s another new sign down on route 140 in Milford owned by an eye doctor who might get a black eye from the town if he doesn’t take it down. It happens to be right across from a colorful flashing bank sign!

    Sign, sign everywhere a sign….

  9. @Bill K. The “dark-sky movement” is really more of an astronomy thing than a general public bit. Wikipedia has a page on it if you’re interested. To be clear, I’m not saying that I think this is an immediate problem or anything like that. I can see the stars just fine and suspect that it will be a long time before that ceases to be true. I’m just pointing out possible problems with signs of this nature, not things with which I’m actively concerned. I still think that sign in Worcester is a hideous eyesore (and broken to boot!), though, and really hope we never see anything like it around here.

  10. Does the Verizon blowup at the Koopman Plaza fall into the “signs consisting of pennants, ribbons, streamers…” category?

  11. The Verizon blowup is most definitely a sign, and, unless they have a permit (I’m sure they don’t, they’d need a special permit from the PB or a variance from the ZBA and I saw ads for neither) it is an illegal sign.

    This is the definition of a sign:

    Sign: Any words, lettering, parts of letters, figures, numerals, phrases, sentences, emblems, devices, designs, trade names or trademarks whether stationary or portable, illuminated or not,
    by which any thing, advertisement, identification or message, is made known, such as are used to designate or locate an individual, firm, association, corporation, profession, business, commodity, product or process, which are visible from a public or private way, or right-of-way and used to attract attention.

    The rest of the by law can be found at http://www.town.grafton.ma.us/Public_Documents/GraftonMA_Planning/ZBLtoc with Section 2.3 providing sign defintions and Section 4.4 discussing sign regulations.

    As you drive around town think about that sign definition. I’ll bet you can find a boatload of things that are actually signs that you never really thought of before. For example, a soda vending machine…

    (I’m not saying I agree with the definitions, like everyone else in town I need to live with em)

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