The following is an open letter from Wilton business owner and resident Megan Abrahamson. On the record as an advocate of the town reexamining current signage regulations, she writes in response to news that Wilton’s Planning &Zoning Commission will begin to review town sign regs and to recent comments made about her by one commissioner in particular.
To our Selectmen, P&Z Commission, and Town Planner;
I am happy that the P&Z Commission has put the issue of business signage on their radar. I am also pleased that Chairman Chris Hulse and Town Planner Bob Nerney seem open to input from local businesses and residents. I do, however, have some concern about the primary focus on the Chamber of Commerce as the representative of local businesses. I also have great concerns that some members of the P&Z Commission do not welcome fair and equal treatment for all parties but would rather prefer to “take it case by case.”
I am anxious to see the P&Z Commission schedule open meetings for business owners and residents to share their ideas. Although the Chamber of Commerce in Wilton is a fine organization, I am concerned about the Chamber’s role as representative for all retailers of Wilton which is why open meetings are so important. The Chamber of Commerce provides many valuable services but it is not a “free” advocacy group nor is it an organization focused on retailers. There are almost 300 members of the Wilton Chamber of Commerce. Less than 20 of them are retailers. Of the 13 board members, two are retailers. There is a fee of $275 to join for businesses with 1-5 employees; $350 to join for businesses with 6-25 employees; $450 for 25-50 employees and up from there. Many retailers have elected to invest their resources in other areas of their business rather than pay for membership.
One of the issues that I have found so frustrating about sign regulation is the apparent inequity among different groups in town. Real estate brokers and landlords are allowed to place large, temporary, “for lease” or “for sale” signs in front of properties. Business owners that lease these spaces do not have the same privilege. Coincidentally, real estate brokers, lawyers, and landlords have greater representation and generate more income in membership fees for the Chamber of Commerce than retailers do. It is possible that this could create a conflict of interest for the Chamber of Commerce in fairly representing both retailers and landlords.
As an aside, there are several cases on record that suggest that regulating signs based on the sign applicant or content of the sign is a form of censorship and a violation of First Amendment rights. I would urge the P&Z Commission to keep this in mind when they decide which individuals and organizations should be allowed to place temporary signs in Wilton. (See Ballen v. City of Redmond, Fears v. City of Sacramento, Reed v Town of Gilbert.)
I know it would be faster and possibly less heated to have a single individual, a committee, or board (such as the Chamber of Commerce) summarize the signage issue and boil it down to a few bullet points. Those who can most clearly articulate what is needed for our businesses, however, are our individual business owners. I urge the P&Z Commission and members of the Board of Selectmen to set dates for open meetings and invite business owners to directly express their requests (these should occur before – not after – a resolution is drafted). Although P&Z commissioner John Comiskey suggests evaluating signs on a conservative case-by-case basis, only landlords can submit applications for specific site permits for a property. Therefore, an individual business that rents a business space does not have the opportunity to present an individual case to be evaluated.
At the last P&Z meeting, Mr. Comiskey stated: “everybody wants the inflatable guy flailing his arms and the balloons out all the time to make money, that’s what it’s all about.” That’s not what this is all about. This is about local business owners finding a fair and attractive way to let customers know we are here while hopefully adding to the charm and character of the town. This enables us to stay in business, pay our employees, pay our rent, pay our property, sales, and income taxes, and – after all of that – perhaps generate some income for ourselves. I don’t expect someone else to represent my business as well as I can.
Comiskey also stated [referring to me] that, “you knew what you were renting when you rented it.” (Wilton Bulletin, Jan. 13, 2015) Yes, I knew my signage was not ideal when I signed the lease. There is no property or business without opportunity for improvement, however. Do not fault me for trying to make improvements to my business and, hopefully, the entire community. Please give me – as well as other Wilton business owners and residents – the opportunity to do so. I would like to ask the following of our community:
To the P&Z Commission, please set dates and extend invitations for community input as well as a date to present a proposal for changes to current sign regulation. Please have all P&Z Commission members attend at least one of these sessions so that constituents have the opportunity to share their concerns and ideas directly with the Commission.
To our community and business owners, please take a look at the current regulation and make specific suggestions for improvements. (See Planning & Zoning regulations. Refer to section 29-8.A, beginning on page 136, for sign regulations and 29-8.A.7.c on page 141 for rules regarding temporary signs.) Feel free to be creative, let’s not limit solutions to what other neighboring towns have implemented. Share those ideas with Bob Nerney and Bill Brennan to be forwarded to the P&Z Commission (email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org). I hope people will feel empowered to share their ideas, here are mine:
- Allow one temporary sign per business to be placed in a non-hazardous location during business hours and provide a template so that the signs are attractive and highlight Wilton as a thriving business destination (click each image to see full example).
- Allow adaptive use buildings to have signs that match those allowed for DRB Retail Business and GB General Business Districts.
My rent serves to maintain a historic post office in Wilton, CT while my retail offering provides a service to residents. These both serve the interest of the community but are difficult to achieve with a small oval sign measuring less than 2 square feet on my building and road sign identification which has a font size of approximately 2 inches in height.
Megan LaBant Abrahamsen
(a.k.a. “That young lady with the business on Route 7,” as referred to by John Comiskey)