AMHERST CITY COUNCIL: Signs effort killed, will be revived in 2016

By Jason Hawk -

A radical re-write of signage laws will be revived in 2016 after city council killed a proposal Monday in committee debate.

In a unanimous decision, Amherst legislators decided not to move forward with a single, exhaustive overhaul of rules on where and what type of signs can be raised.

Instead, they intend to reintroduce the issue one piece at a time in the new year, focusing in turn on lighting, temporary signs, permanent signs, and lighting.

For weeks, law director Tony Pecora, assistant law director Frank Carlson, and building inspector David Macartney have been drafting big changes to sign laws. Along the way, council has given its feedback and made tweaks and requests of its own.

Brightness has been one issue raised to address neighbor complaints about sign lighting.

Councilman Chuck Winiarski has asked that a 10-foot-candle limit be enacted, which would make the maximum sign brightness roughly equal to that of the full moon.

Another change would limit wall signs to a height no greater than the building to which they are attached.

A great deal of discussion has gone into sign content.

City attorneys have strongly cautioned council against any language that would limit free speech, whether it’s political, commercial, or whimsical.

Carlson has said on several occasions that limiting what may be written on a sign would be an open invitation to a constitutional challenge. Regulating content “means you have a problem on your hands,” he said.

If Amherst were to lose such a suit, it wouldn’t just mean needing to change the law. Carlson said the city could face serious financial damages.

According to Macartney, the revisions are the result of problems with requests to erect electronic signs around town.

Starting in 2013, he began seeking ways to clean up wording that’s been on the books since 1986 and doesn’t fully address modern signage issues.

From there, his efforts evolved into fixing problems with legal issues over temporary signs.

Council seems to also feel changes are needed but is mixed on how to proceed. Councilman Joe Miller called the ordinance currently on the books “a mess” during an early November meeting.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

By Jason Hawk