Court case forcing rewrite of Manchester sign rules
MANCHESTER — The Planning Commission began discussions Monday about changes to the land use and development ordinance to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that severely restricts government agencies from regulating signage based on its content.
Town planning and zoning director Janet Hurley told the commission that any regulation specific to sign content poses the potential threat of a legal challenge under the precedent set by the Supreme Court case Reed v. Town of Gilbert. In that 2015 case, the high court ruled that signage laws regulating content are subject to the principle of "strict scrutiny:" They must be justified by a compelling governmental interest, the law must be narrowly defined to achieve that interest, and it must do so with as little restriction as possible.
"If you have to read the sign to determine if it meets the regulation, that's content-based," she said. But the town can still regulate signage based on size, construction, illumination and other physical factors.
For example, at present the town sign regulations — Chapter 10 of the land use and development ordinance (better known as the zoning ordinance) — decree that a business is allowed two rigid "open" signs without a permit, which may contain only the text "open" and business hours.
That rule would have to be amended substantially, to eliminate the number of open signs and the restriction on what they can say.
Hurley told the three board members present — Chris Glabach and Greg Boshart were absent — that if a business wanted to use its full allotment of square footage under the ordinance to say "open," she said, the town would have no recourse.
Hurley, board vice chair Todd Nebraska, and board members Ana Rahona and Tina Cutler discussed ideas about how the town should proceed. Cutler said she'd like the signs to remain proportional to their surroundings, so there's uniform size among signs in a given district.
Nebraska argued against a full rewrite of the ordinance, saying "my preference would be to fix what we need to fix."
In other business, the board also directed Hurley to move forward on seeking a Neighborhood Area Development Designation for the area surrounding the historic downtown. That designation would allow the town to pursue grants and incentives for pedestrian-oriented development of the downtown.
The proposed area is divided into two parcels, as waterways and wetlands limit the available areas eligible for the designation. The eastern section extends from Depot Street near its intersection with Highland Avenue; up Center Hill Road to Cemetery Avenue; portions of School Street and Bonnet Street; Main Street; and Barnumville Road. The western section extends south on Main Street to Ways Lane and includes side streets extending off Main Street.
That neighborhood designation is endorsed by the downtown strategic plan produced by consultants who led a planning charette here last year. That strategic plan will be the topic of a public hearing, set for Monday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. The plan builds on the work of the recently completed overhaul of the zoning ordinance, and the 2016 NEDS study, to develop a strategy for developing a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly downtown.
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