The Zoning Board of Adjustment approved with a 3-1 vote a variance to allow a freestanding sign with changeable pricing at the Global gas station on Hampton Drive.
Alternate member Bill Berardino, who filled in for an absent member, voted against the sign at the Board’s Sept. 16 meeting.
Dan Berry of Alliance Energy Corp. said the prices for gas at Global are the only element of the sign that would change to reflect fluctuations on the market – likely, no more than once daily.
Members of the public expressed concern that granting the waiver would open a “Pandora’s Box,” setting a precedent for any other business in town that wants a changeable electronic message board.
MHF Design Consultants Project Manager Huseyin Sevincgil argued that denying the variance would create an unreasonable hardship for his client, who purchased the sign after the Heritage Commission and Planning Board considered design plans for the structure and raised no objections to the proposal.
Based on minutes from the Commission’s May 22 meeting, at least one commissioner made reference to the sign’s electronic numbers.
“It was an oversight,” said Heritage Commission Vice Chairman Pauline Caron, who called for the Board to deny the variance.
“We went through vigorous staff and peer review, and at no point did anyone mention this sign would not be allowed until (Alliance Energy Corp.) went for the sign permit,” Sevincgil said. “We didn’t try to pull anything over anyone’s head. We met with the Planning Board in April of 2014, as well, and we worked with the town all throughout the process.”
Further, Sevincgil argued the sign doesn’t meet any of the flashing, moving, animated or noise-making definitions that are listed in the Town’s definitions.
Resident Thomas Booth of 13 Partridge Lane took the side of the gas company, arguing the changeable message board wouldn’t create the kind of issues a sign with flashing, moving or continuously changing elements would.
“I know there’s a lot of controversy regarding whether or not it’s a message board or changing digits. I think we’re splitting hairs,” Booth said. “The way I read the ordinance, I think the sign is allowed.”
Citing various requirements of the ordinance, Booth argued that changing the sign from a manual to an electronic price change would improve safety for gas station employees.
“The changing of the sign from a manual to electronic price changer is a safety issue for those who have to go out with a tall pole in the cold weather and change those numbers,” he said. “It’s not easy to do, particularly in bad weather.”
Additionally, Booth argued that because the gas station is located in a busy commercial district, the LED lit sign wouldn’t have a significant impact on the character of the Town.
“Changing the sign from the existing sign to this more modern sign is enhancing the appearance, there’s no question about it,” he said. “That area is all businesses. For all intents and purposes, it’s a commercial zone; so, there’s no difference in what they currently have manually to going digital. You can have someone go out there 10 times a day to manually change those numbers, which is far more distracting than a digitally changing sign.”
Booth noted a digital sign would be more attractive and uniform than manual signs he has seen in town that have oversized numbers, or missing cards.
“We have allowed pumps to change over the years, we have allowed them to build a beautiful, brand new building. Why not allow them to have a new sign to go with the new building? If I had a business and I was told I couldn’t use my new technology, I wouldn’t be interested in coming to Londonderry. The numbers change whether it’s manually or digitally, it’s just a different technology doing it. We also used to use a crank to start our cars,” he said. “I fully support this, and I understand what people are concerned about. They’re concerned about having large signs with moving objects, pictures, specials of the day; and I fully support those people’s concerns in regards to that. You can put in stipulations that would prevent that.”
In considering the ordinance, the Board concluded the sign is consistent with high design standards, and that during the planning process, the applicant was led to believe his design was acceptable to the Town.
“It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” Chairman James Smith said. “I think in today’s environment, everyone is trying to use technology to make everything more efficient. Using this type of lighting is more efficient than using something else.”
Smith said he thinks the hardship for the applicant lies in the fact the applicant said he would have changed the sign before purchasing the changeable message board, had someone from the Town or the Heritage Commission alerted him to the restriction in the ordinance.
“The applicant never would have been here today because he would have addressed that point,” he said. “The process itself was flawed, leading to this and us having to decide.”
Member Neil Dunn noted the expense of the sign was likely quite substantial.
Ultimately, the Board did grant the variance, with the condition the pricing is the only element on the sign that is permitted to change.
Smith noted the Board’s decision to grant the variance doesn’t set precedent for other businesses to install changeable message boards.
“Each case is supposed to be considered on its own merits,” he said. “What makes this case unique is the applicant went through this extensive design review planning process; and, whether by mistake or omission, he was given the impression this was acceptable.”