Sign ordinance

MILFORD – An ordinance that restricts the height, size and lighting of new signs in town has gone into effect, but its future in its current shape appears uncertain after a public hearing Tuesday night.

The proposed changes to Milford’s decades-old sign ordinance, developed by an appointed committee, have not been voted on by the Planning Board or approved by Town Meeting. But under state law, town officials said, they went into effect as soon as they were posted as part of a legal announcement for Tuesday’s public hearing, more than a week ago.

The changes do not affect existing signs, and no new developments have been affected by the change, according to Town Planner Bill Parker. Further, the status of the ordinance could easily change. At least one more work session and one more public hearing are slated for the 16-page proposal before the Planning Board votes on whether to put it before Town Meeting in March.

Any alterations made by the board would immediately go into effect. If the board decides not to put the ordinance before Town Meeting, or if it is rejected by voters, then the sign ordinance would revert to its current status, according to officials.

Among other things, the new ordinance cuts the height of most free-standing signs almost in half, from 15 feet to 8 feet; puts limits on the size of signs attached to the inside of business windows; and requires businesses to turn off lighted signs two hours after they close. The aim, say proponents, is to end roadside clutter, preserve a “rural character,” and keep Route 101A in Milford from looking like 101A in Nashua.

Sign ordinances are often controversial – Nashua has seen much angry debate on the topic, and Milford’s last attempt to change the ordinance a decade ago ended after legal challenges from some businesses.

But Tuesday’s public hearing was civil and polite. It was attended by about three-dozen people, several of whom said they were concerned about the effect of the changes on businesses, and on the town.

“Enforcement is a major concern,” said George Infanti, owner of Milford Paint and Wallpaper, and a former selectman. “My personal opinion is you’ll need one to two full-time building inspectors just to enforce it.”

Infanti noted that several years ago, Milford took one business owner to court twice to get him to remove an illegal sign and won both times, but still the sign didn’t go away until the business moved.

“That was just one sign, and I believe it cost us thousands,” he said. “This is going to be . . . a very, very expensive ordinance.”

Three owners of companies that make or sell signs expressed caution about the ordinance.

Paul Trip, owner of Classic Signs in Amherst and a representative of the New Hampshire Sign Association, estimated that up to 90 percent of the business signs now in Milford couldn’t have been built under the new ordinance.

Tripp and other sign makers offered to help with a Dec. 1 working session to consider changes to the ordinance – an offer welcomed by Selectman Noreen O’Connell.

The ordinance has been worked on for at least two years by a committee whose membership has waned considerably over time, according to O’Connell, who appears to be the only active member left.

“This was not a secret committee,” she said. “I made phone calls to some of you, to see if I could get you on this committee two years ago. . . . We worked very hard to get members onto it; it was like pulling teeth.”

One thing the new ordinance does not do is require a town permit before putting up temporary signs for yard sales. A summary put together by officials mistakenly said that it did.