Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sign of the Times

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on February 28th, 2009

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”
- Five Man Electrical Band

Is it a sign of the times, a sign of trouble, or a sign of things to come? That remains to be seen, but the attitude of Norton officials towards some local businesses is a bad sign in general.

The Norton Planning Board is currently considering a ban on certain types of illuminated signs in town. You’ve all seen the signs – the ones that look like small television sets displaying not only words but actual animation.

The concern of Norton planners (and I use the word “planners” loosely) is twofold. First and foremost, they are concerned about safety. Some believe the signs are too distracting for motorists, particularly at night, and could cause accidents and injuries.

Secondly, the signs offend the delicate sensibilities of some officials and residents. Selectman Bob Kimball summed that attitude up saying “It kind of takes away from the small-town look of things. It kind of gives it a Vegas look.”

Yeah, just the other day a motorist on Route 123 in Norton stopped to ask me how to get to Caesar’s Palace. The signs along the roadway had obviously convinced him he was on the downtown Vegas strip. You know how we locals are easily confused.

It is not my goal here to make light of safety concerns or the wishes of many to live in idyllic rural bliss. But in a town with a record and reputation of being as anti-business as Norton, it would seem officials would have a lot more important things to do than cracking down on good taxpayers who are just trying to survive and make a living.

Norton did not have zoning until 1974. It does not have a clearly defined “downtown”. It is a large town area-wise, consisting of almost 30 square miles. It contains one supermarket, five donut shops, four banks, five schools, two car washes, a small industrial park, a PGA golf course, and a whole bunch of small businesses trying to stay afloat in these oppressive economic times.

Some of these businesses have embraced technology and utilized eye-catching signs. The signs are helping their businesses. The signs are conspicuous (which is what signs are supposed to be) and draw attention.

But are we to believe in this day of cell phones, CD players, GPS devices and car speakers the size of Rhode Island that an illuminated sign on the roadside is a threat to the public? Drivers are capable of safely looking at a GPS screen in their car, but an outside sign advertising a car wash might force them off the road?

Norton has never been a business-friendly community. There was a McDonald’s in Moscow before there was one in Norton. A pizza delivery company was not allowed to locate in the Roche Brothers plaza because of traffic concerns. A Dunkin Donuts near the alleged center of town has been denied a drive-thru by the Planning Board, but homeowners living on tiny residential lots in a Water Protection District have been granted permission to raise chickens on the premises.

Our federal government recently passed an $800 billion economic stimulus package to revive our failing economy. Yet Norton continues to make things as difficult as possible for those small businesses that make up the backbone of our economic system.

I’ve lived in Norton virtually my entire life. I’ve watched it grow from 6000 residents in 1965 to close to 20,000 today. I loved the town I grew up in during the 60’s, and I love the town now.

But I’m able to recognize those are two different towns. The rural Norton of my youth has gone the way of my late grandparents’ Norton farm. It’s still there – it just doesn’t look the same anymore.

To those who are offended by the illuminated signs, I ask – would you be happier with normal signs proclaiming “Out of Business”? Would those signs make your town better and safer? Reasonable regulations on illuminated signs are fine, but don’t ban them.

Norton has many problems requiring prompt action. Illuminated signs are not one of them.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime Norton resident. He can be reached at aninsidelook@aol.com.

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