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Town wants signs shorter

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The town of Watertown may force all signs taller than 20 feet to be shortened to that height or shorter.

In June, the town enacted new sign regulations that have height and surface area requirements based on whether the sign sits by a state, county or local road. The Planning Board hoped that as businesses sought to refurbish or change their signs, the ones that don't comply with the new regulations would be changed.

But at least one business fought changing the height of its sign by going to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which found the refurbishing didn't change the message of the sign and the town therefore couldn't force it to change because it was grandfathered in.

The Planning Board, seeking to tighten the language, had a workshop with members of the Town Council and Zoning Board of Appeals on Monday.

"If you're trying to legislate away from the old signs, you need to amortize it over a certain time instead of messing with the wording here," said town attorney Joseph W. Russell. "If you're just trying to dance around the issue, I'm not so sure it's going to be enforceable."

Some sign owners, however, apparently have voluntarily complied with the changes.

"We have had good cooperation with those west of 81 and we wanted to have that occur in the rest of the town," Planning Board Co-Chairman Thomas E. Boxberger said.

Even before the new sign ordinance was passed, businesses along outer Arsenal Street agreed to have signs that followed the proposed law.

"Our interest was to let it evolve as the businesses replaced the signs," Mr. Boxberger said.

Supervisor Joel R. Bartlett asked if it's really the town's role to force property owners to beautify their property.

"I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea in thinking we can make a business that has been there 20 years change the sign. With all the regulations from the state and federal government, we're just adding more regulations on the business," he said.

The Planning Board also sought to broaden the definition of kennel so that not just commercial storage of dogs outside would be included.

"There are a number of places where people could have hunting dogs where the houses are closer together, so if we force them to be farther back, they are not as much of a nuisance to the neighbors," Mr. Boxberger said.

Both the supervisor and the town attorney voiced objections.

"We have an ordinance on the books for barking dogs, "Mr. Bartlett said.

Mr. Russell suggested that the Planning Board define more clearly whether the kennel is a structure or enclosure and think about whether it would be a proper use of the zoning law.

"It's hard to legislate on the problem you have, which is what you're trying to do here," he said. "This is trying to take a permitted residential use and further regulate it."

Town Fire Department Chief Charles M. Dillon also asked that the board consider a zoning change or local law to require most businesses to get Knox Boxes, lock boxes that hold entry keys to businesses. The Fire Department has four keys to get into the boxes, which are set to accept only the town Fire Department's keys.

"In a fire, we would force entry anyway," Mr. Dillon said. "It's just for when we have a 2 a.m. call and we don't see smoke; we aren't going to force entry but we also must investigate."

After the Planning Board refines its zoning law revision suggestions, the Town Council must hold a public hearing before acting on them.

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