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Debate over signs and tables boils over at council meeting

BERLIN — Downtown merchants turned out in mass at the Monday
meeting of the Berlin Town Council to register their discontent with
actions by the Historic District Commission to curb the use of sandwich
board signs and café tables along Main Street. Joining that dissent were
Mayor Gee Williams and Town Administrator Anthony Carson.

The following morning, Planning and Zoning Director Chuck Ward, the town
liaison to the commission resigned, after reportedly being given the
option to depart on his own or be dismissed.

Citing editorials and news articles in this paper, Williams and Carson
took issue with the commission assumption of jurisdiction over the
placement and appearance of moveable structures and sought guidance from
Town Attorney David Gaskill.

Williams commented on the efforts the town had been taking to create a
business-friendly environment for the downtown Main Street sector.

“The idea of restricting or outlawing sandwich board signs is something that is a major step backward,” he said.

Ward said the town was undergoing a revision of its comprehensive plan
and that a revision of the zoning code would likely be a part of that
process.

Williams asked if Ward had discussed the matter with Carson or Public
Works Director Michael Gibbons. When Ward responded that the issue had
been the topic of discussions, Carson interjected that the decision to
bar the signs would not have been his opinion.

During an April 17 special meeting, the Historic Commission discussed
the practice of the owners of the Globe Theater and Si’Culi restaurant
placing café tables along the sidewalks in front of their
establishments.

Town Councilmember Lisa Hall told the commission that she was concerned
that the tables might hinder passage by wheelchairs and strollers, in
violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the
meeting’s minutes. At the time of the meeting, the commission was
waiting to receive advice from the town attorney on the legal
ramifications of the sidewalk tables.

In a separate April 19 letter, the commission ended an agreement
allowing the owner of Town Center Antiques to place the store’s sandwich
board on Main Street.

“The Commission found that the sign’s quality and design were not
consistent with other signs in the District, but did provide the
allowance of the sign for the remainder of the 2012 calendar year,” the
letter said.

Ward said in the letter, “As the enforcement officer for the Commission,
it is my duty to advise you to no longer display your sidewalk sign
until you have returned to the Commission to either receive approval for
the existing sign [or] approval of a new sign.”

At that time, it was expected that the staff would recommend the
sandwich board signs be eliminated in the new draft of the town’s zoning
code, based on the discussions of the commission.

According to Williams, the commission had no authority to change the
town’s zoning code to disallow the signs. Fixed sidewalk structures do
fall under the purview of the commission, however, according to Gaskill.

Williams said later the fear of the business community was not based on
real information and that the commissioner’s questions never came
through the proper channels to the town employee with the responsibility
for the decision. The commission should have been given more guidance
and they were not, he said.

At the council’s direction Gaskill has drafted a proposed ordinance to
formalize the town’s policy on the use of café tables and signs to
ensure that they comply with the zoning code and Americans with
Disabilities Act. The proposed ordinance is expected to be presented for
a first reading during the May 28 council meeting.

According to a copy the proposal, changes (italicized for emphasis) pertaining to sidewalk obstructions would direct that:

It shall be unlawful except with the permission of the Mayor and Council
for the owner or occupant of any premises within the corporate limits
of the town to place, erect or store, or to cause or permit to be
placed, erected or stored on the sidewalk abutting his premises any
articles, chattels, tables and chairs or merchandise of any type, except
that this article shall not apply to placing or maintaining on said
portion of the sidewalk any scales or weighing devices, stands for the
use in selling newspapers or stone flower boxes.

The mayor and council shall not permit any articles, chattels, tables
and chairs or merchandise of any type to be placed on a sidewalk unless
said obstructing items comply with and meet the minimum sidewalk
accessibility standards contained in the Maryland State Highway
Administration’s accessibility policy and guidelines for pedestrian
facilities along state highways, June 2010 edition.

Any sidewalk sign permitted to be placed in a commercial district
pursuant to Chapter 108, Article X, Section 108-91 of the Town Code
shall be exempt from the requirement of seeking permission of the mayor
and council for the placement of said sidewalk sign; but shall comply
with and meet the minimum sidewalk accessibility standards contained in
the Maryland State Highway Administration’s accessibility policy and
guidelines for pedestrian facilities along state highways, June 2010
edition.

During Monday’s council meeting, Councilmember Paula Lynch had
questioned Gaskill’s assertion that the commission had no jurisdiction
over the street signs and had asked Ward to research the similar
practices by other historic district commissions. She said she had
noticed some signs that clearly did not meet the town’s standards.

Ward had said that when he came into the position as planning director the commission granted approval of the town signs.