The Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) continued to its next meeting a hearing on a request for a variance to allow a changeable electronic message board to display gas prices at the Global Gas Station on Hampton Drive.
Representing the gas station at the Wednesday, Aug. 19 meeting, Mark Gross of MHF Design Consultants said the only elements of the electronic, LED changeable copy that would change are the prices of gas being sold at the business.
“Because gas prices fluctuate frequently, it would be easier to use a changeable sign,” he told the ZBA, noting there would be no moving or flashing elements to the sign. “Only the pricing would change electronically, when gas prices change. It would be daily, weekly or monthly.”
Although the sign could change daily, it’s unlikely it would, according to Gross.
“There won’t be flashing, or changes every 10 seconds or 15 seconds. The sign might change daily – only if the price fluctuations on the market change daily. And that’s pretty unusual,” he said.
But members of the Heritage Commission spoke against granting the variance, saying a changeable electronic message board is prohibited by a zoning regulation adopted with a fair amount of input from the public; and that the changeable sign would change the character of the Town and negatively impact property values in surrounding neighborhoods.
“I believe that the public interest still rests with not allowing such signage in Londonderry. As a member of the Heritage Commission, we have not seen any applicants for new buildings or renovations ask for an electronic sign as part of their proposed plans,” Commissioner David Colglazier wrote in an email to the Board. “There is no reason to know whether or not the value of surrounding properties are enhanced or decreased by allowing an electronic message board. I have yet to see a real estate listing exhorting the benefit of having a ‘view of electronic sign.’ I would suggest that we let some other town be the site for this social experimentation in property values and community ambiance.”
In Alliance Energy Corporation’s June 26 presentation to the Heritage Commission of its proposed freestanding sign, the company did not request a sign with changeable copy, Colglazier noted.
The applicant proposed a lower exterior, free standing sign, which the Commission recommended the Zoning Board approve.
Colglazier and other members of the Heritage Commission argued at the Aug. 19 hearing the variance does not adopt the spirit of the Town’s ordinance in any way.
According to the ordinance, “changeable electronic message board signs are prohibited in all zoning districts.”
“The term ‘prohibited’ does not have any allowances or shades of meaning,’” Colglazier wrote. “There is no lawfulness or rightfulness to be done by allowing something that is clearly prohibited. Substantial justice is done by upholding this prohibition.”
Code Enforcement Officer Richard Canuel advised the Board to deny the variance, as the ordinance clearly prohibits changeable electronic message boards.
Gross argued the proposed pricing element of the sign, strictly the changing numbers, doesn’t fall within the Town’s definition of a changeable message board.
“In the definitions, it describes what is considered an electronic message board, and it talks about everything else but numeric elements,” Gross said. “Numerals are not a message.”
“The Board has the flexibility to determine the difference between changeable message boards and numerical messages,” Canuel said.
“My thought is, a lot of banks and other businesses like to use temperature and time. In that case, it’s numerical. Perhaps, in their mind, they thought those particular items would not qualify under the electronic leader board because they were not listed as being prohibited,” Gross said. “And traditionally, leader boards are all those other definitions, have flashing animated pictures and other symbols.”
Heritage Commissioner Pauline Caron of 369 Mammoth Road, a resident for 51 years, said she has seen a lot of changes and a lot of growth in Londonderry, and that the ordinance related to changeable electronic message boards “was drafted by knowledgeable people, and passed with a public hearing.”
Caron noted the Heritage Commission reviewed all the plans for the proposed freestanding sign – its specifications, materials, landscaping, signage – to make sure it conformed to zoning ordinance.
“They never mentioned an electronic message board, and I don’t think they should be granted this variance because of the fact it’s electronically changed,” she said. “From Mammoth Road to the Derry line, there are eight gas stations. If you grant this, everyone else will want an electronic sign. Pretty soon, you’ll have a Las Vegas in Londonderry. If you grant this, you’re opening a Pandora’s box.”
“The undue hardship would be on the Town if this variance is allowed,” Colglazier said. “There will be no stopping other businesses or organizations to not erect such visual clutter after they apply for variances to this prohibition. If you allow this one, how will you stop the next one?”
“Think of what’s coming down the road,” agreed Deb Paul of 118 Hardy Road, publisher of the Londonderry Times, reminding the Board of all the businesses to be constructed as part of Woodmont Commons.
“I have been here since 1960, and when I saw pictures of the building Global was going to build I was very impressed. I almost fell out of my chair this month when I saw they applied for changeable signage,” Marilyn Webber of Peabody Row said. “This is a colonial town with a mix of buildings on Route 102. We have colonial houses, a designated scenic road and a man who collects sap and makes maple syrup. I don’t think this is in the best interest of the town.”
Sue Joudrey of Peabody Row said she is “very much against” an electronic leader board, and expressed concern the changeable element could distract drivers, creating a safety issue.
But Gross argued the ordinance allows for a changeable message board, with a definition for what qualifies as an electronic leader board.
“Concerns about it being an electronic leader board are unfounded because this is not an electronic leader board,” he said.
Gross also argued that granting the variance wouldn’t open a “Pandora’s Box” in Londonderry.
“I don’t think some of the other gas stations are going to come in and specifically re-do their sign just so they can have the LED lighting for the pricing. And even if they did, they would be no more intense than if they were internally lit with LED lighting,” he said.
Member Neil Dunn asked Gross why his client didn’t propose the approved, freestanding sign as a changeable message board when the plans were originally proposed.
“Because at that time, it was our belief it was allowed,” he said. “This was to be electronically lit, as allowed; but we were not aware it would be deemed an electronic leader board until the sign was applied for.”
Members of the Board agreed to continue the hearing to allow time to review the minutes from the meeting at which they initially approved Alliance Energy Corporation’s freestanding sign.
The Board’s next meeting is Sept. 16.