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Havre de Grace cultural, religious institutions ask for change to allow electronic signs

The Rev. James Snodgrass, at podium, priest-in-charge at St. John's Episcopal Church, is surrounded by church leaders and members during a June 3 Havre de Grace City Council public hearing on an ordinance revamping the city's sign code.
The Rev. James Snodgrass, at podium, priest-in-charge at St. John's Episcopal Church, is surrounded by church leaders and members during a June 3 Havre de Grace City Council public hearing on an ordinance revamping the city's sign code. (David Anderson/The Aegis)

Representatives of downtown Havre de Grace’s cultural and religious institutions want an ordinance intended to update the city’s existing sign code to include revisions which would allow them to have electronic signs in their zoning district.

Ordinance 1019 is meant to “regulate all exterior signage in an effort to protect property values and the historic character of the City of Havre de Grace,” according to the legislation, which is available on the city’s website. It could come before the City Council at its next meeting Monday, July 1, following a public hearing on the ordinance June 3 and a council work session June 18.

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Regulations included in the proposed sign code are meant to “balance the need to protect the public safety and welfare, the need for a well-maintained and attractive community and the need for adequate identification, communication and advertising,” according to the ordinance.

Council President David Glenn said, in an interview June 21, that it is “hard to say” how the six member council would vote, adding city planning department staff have done “a lot of hard work” on the ordinance.

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Rather than tear down the high school gym and auditorium once the new school is built and open next year, the city of Havre de Grace is going to keep them.

A number of speakers at the 46-minute public hearing earlier this month urged the council to amend Chapter 151-17, which as written prohibits electronic signs in the residential-office (RO) zoning district. Chapter 151-21 covers multiple regulations on electronic message centers, or EMCs, that are permitted in commercial districts, the only districts where electronic signs are allowed.

Many of the speakers represented three significant community institutions within an RO district along Union Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. They included the Cultural Center at the Opera House, the Havre de Grace Library and St. John’s Episcopal Church, all of which are in the 100 block of North Union between Pennington and Congress avenues.

Those three “represent a cultural, and one of the community, heartbeats of our city,” said William Price, a senior warden at St. John’s and chairman of the board for the Havre de Grace Arts Collective, a nonprofit organization that manages the Cultural Center at the Opera House.

“To limit the effective messaging for each of these organizations is to eliminate good and timely communication to our citizens,” Price said.

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Current law prohibits any sign on or over a public-right-of-way or other property of the city without written consent of the mayor and city council, which the exception of election signs. Regarding electronic signs, the existing code states: "No sign shall have blinking, flashing or fluttering lights or other illuminating devices which have a changing light intensity, brightness or color or which are so constructed and operated as to create an appearance or illusion of motion or writing.”

Glenn, who gave his personal view on the ordinance, said he recommends keeping the legislation as written and allowing individual organizations to each make their case before the council as to why an electronic sign should be allowed on their property — he noted much of Union Avenue is within the city’s right-of-way, and signage must get council approval before being placed in municipal rights-of-way.

“That way, you give everybody a chance to put forth their proposal on their own merits,” Glenn said.

The council president also said that gives the public a chance to comment, so “you don’t leave anybody out.”

“The best thing to do, at least in my mind, is leave it as written and allow the individual [applicant] to come forward and make a compelling case and put it before council for a decision,” Glenn said.

He said city leaders can ensure “that we make every attempt to preserve the historic landscape of Havre de Grace,” noting he does not want Union Avenue to resemble Las Vegas, with its brightly-lit concentration of casinos and hotels on the Strip.

The inaugural Upper Chesapeake Bay Pride Festival drew thousands to Havre de Grace Saturday. People had great fun, despite a brief interruption by protesters.

Ordinance 1019, in its current form, covers 24 pages and has 29 chapters covering a multitude of sign regulations. The regulations cover matters such as the type of sign permitted in each zoning district, engineering and construction standards, maintenance requirements, how the sign code will be enforced, inspections and how people can seek variances. The ordinance includes five additional pages illustrating the different signs that are permitted.

“It’s fair to ask, ‘Why do we need a new sign ordinance?’” resident Warren Hartenstine said during the public hearing. “Simply put, the current sign ordinance is ineffective.”

Hartenstine — who sits on the city’s planning commission but stressed he was speaking as an individual — said the ordinance “may seem cumbersome” at the first glance.

“The reason for its lack of brevity is to maximize the opportunity for every business to have, within a professional standard, a uniform opportunity to present itself in its own creative image,” he said.

Hartenstine said having “a relatively standardized” sign code is “important to the development of the business community, and also the development of the city.”

“I think it represents a very significant step forward,” he said.

Councilman James Ringsaker thanked members of the public for their input during the hearing, and he also thanked Shane Grimm, deputy planning director, for his hard work on the ordinance to bring regulations “up to current standards.”

“It’s been an issue that needed to be tackled by the council for many, many years,” Mayor William T. Martin added.

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