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Havre de Grace rejects amendment to allow electronic signs in downtown district

An ordinance meant to update the City of Havre de Grace’s current sign code was adopted by the City Council Monday evening, although a proposed amendment that would also allow electronic messaging signs at locations such as houses of worship and government buildings downtown failed.

Representatives of the Havre de Grace Library, St. John’s Episcopal Church and the Cultural Center at the Opera House, all within the 100 block of North Union Avenue downtown, urged city officials to allow electronic signs on their properties to better communicate their services to the public, during a June public hearing on Ordinance 1019.

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The public hearing was in late June, and city leaders spent the next month working out a compromise, as the ordinance as written prohibited electronic signs in residential office districts — such signs, known as electronic message centers or EMCs, are only permitted in commercial districts. Property owners in other zoning districts would need approval from the city’s Board of Appeals to erect an electronic sign.

City leaders held a work session and collaborated with the planning department to develop a compromise amendment that would allow electronic signs on properties in the RO district for “institutional use” at locations such as houses of worship, libraries, schools or other government-owned and operated facilities — the Opera House is owned by the city but managed by a nonprofit entity.

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“We’ve put together an amendment that can, hopefully, compromise between different viewpoints and achieve the amicable result we’re looking for,” Councilman James Ringsaker said.

Ringsaker, who made a motion to adopt the amendment, read the various requirements that would have to be followed for such an electronic sign. The sign’s display area could be no larger than 10 square feet, only one per property; it could only have white letters on a black background or black letters on a white background, no graphics permitted, and the sign must be placed parallel to the road.

The base and foundation must include colors and materials consistent with other buildings on the property, and the city could not issue a permit to erect the sign until the owner had read and signed a disclosure statement indicating they agree to comply with regulations governing electronic signs.

The amendment failed 2-4, as some of Ringsaker’s colleagues expressed concerns about the potential signs’ impact on traffic safety and the historic character of Union Avenue. Ringsaker and Councilwoman Carolyn Zinner voted in favor of it, while Council President David Glenn and council members Casi Boyer, David Martin and Jason Robertson voted against.

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Glenn thanked planning officials for their work on the amendment, but he reiterated his desire that property owners present their case, with supporting documentation, to the City Council for an electronic sign and approval can be granted on a case-by-case basis.

He also expressed concern about motorists having to take their eyes off the road to read a sign running parallel to the street, and questioned the fairness of an amendment that gives institutional properties but not businesses in the same block the opportunity to have electronic signs.

“I try to promote fairness, and I don’t want to give one institution an advantage over a business,” Glenn said.

Boyer reiterated comments she made during the work session about how she is against having electronic signs in a historic part of the city.

“I am against the use of electronic messaging in our historic district, period,” she said.

Boyer said she wants to preserve the “historic charm” of downtown, which visitors love to see as they drive along Union Avenue. She also does not like writing legislation based on a single technology that could change over time.

“I like the idea of a variance process,” she said. “I think that’s more flexible for what our needs are.”

Zinner expressed her support for passing Ordinance 1019 as written and then holding a public hearing for Ringsaker’s amendment. She also echoed her colleague Ringsaker’s statements that the technology is available to have electronic signs that are not intrusive.

Ringsaker expressed his appreciation for the historic feel of downtown Havre de Grace and said he wants his children to grow up with that same feel.

“I don’t feel that the addition of certain electronic signs would change that feel,” he said.

Boyer said she disagrees with Ringsaker, respectfully, but also “wholeheartedly,” as non-electronic signs that resemble other structures help sell “the story of our town.”

“I disagree with you that an electronic sign would sell the story, as much as a sign that’s designed to mimic the historic charm of our town,” she told Ringsaker.

After the amendment failed, the council voted unanimously in favor of the bill as written, with a number of clerical changes that had been approved.

City resident Carrie Parsons, who was sworn in as a new member of the Street and Traffic Safety Advisory Board Monday, discussed the ordinance during the public comment session at the end of the meeting.

Parsons, who is retired from the Air Force where she served as an emergency responder and planner, noted other cities to which she was deployed allowed electronic signs at places such as churches that could be used during disasters to direct people to different services.

Parsons said she has seen such signs in cities that have designated historic districts, and she encouraged Havre de Grace officials to update the city’s zoning code to include a historic district, which comes with requirements to preserve the character of existing buildings.

Parsons said later that she would favor electronic signs, within the boundaries of a designated historic district, that the city could use during an emergency, but not for commercial purposes.

“Let’s do it because the city needs it to protect the citizens,” she said. “I don’t [want] RoFo flashing out that their gas is $2.50 a gallon.”

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