Town Council could lift ban on electronic signs

Town Council could lift ban on electronic signs

Lighted electronic message boards may soon be allowed

CUMBERLAND – For the moment at least, electronic signs of all types are banned in Cumberland, a regulation that went into effect in 2009, just weeks after J.A. Appliance erected its controversial message board on Mendon Road.

Still, that wasn’t stopping Supt. Philip Thornton from pushing forward last week with plans for a “stagnant” electronic message board at the high school.

Thornton told the School Committee’s fiscal management subcommittee that he confidently expects the ban on computer-controlled signs lifted by the Town Council on Sept. 4 and wanted a new sign ready to light up soon after that.

His optimism was based, he said, on a Town Hall meeting where he and Business Manager Alex Prignano came away assured by Mayor Daniel McKee that the Town Council would be amending the town’s sign regulations to allow the electronic signs in town, provided the messages aren’t constantly moving.

Prignano told the subcommittee that both the mayor and Planning and Community Development Director Kelley Morris told them, “We’re going forward with this.”

Prignano also said the mayor assured them, “legislatively they’d take care of this for us.”

The proposed sign, about 36- by 120-inches, would be installed by Dion Signs of Central Falls, but manufactured by a major electronic sign maker, Watchfire, the company called for in the bid specifications. The plan is to use the poles of the existing sign and run new wiring from the school. Lighting along the driveway would be replaced at the same time.

Watchfire’s website cites 80 years of experience with LED style signs beginning with the time and temperature indicators that banks began using decades ago. Schools are a major customer of Watchfire, but it also makes the giant signs capable of moving pictures.

The design of the proposed sign wasn’t shared with the school board subcommittee and the Breeze was unable to secure a copy.

Thornton says the messages for Mendon Road drivers can reflect upcoming school events such as football games and SAT testing as well as community notices such as Amber Alerts or parking bans.

Prignano told the subcommittee the $22,600 tab will be paid for with accumulated activity funds left behind by graduating classes over the years. Representatives of each class have been contacted by the business office and permission given.

“A lot of people volunteered the money. I can’t believe the town wouldn’t approve it,” he said.

On the books now, Chapter 13-5c of the Cumberland zoning ordinance says:

“Prohibited in all districts: Electronic message signs. A sign that produces computer generated variable messages or another electronic means of changing sign copy. These signs may include displays using LED’s, LCD’s or a flipper matrix.”

Also prohibited are all types of internally lighted signs.

Jeff Mutter heads the fiscal management subcommittee. Initially, he was willing to approve the purchase.

He suggested that if the council rejects the new sign ordinance, “the exposure is to the school department. You’re going to be left with a sign you can’t use. You’re holding the bag on the sign. It’s unlikely but possible.”

His subcommittee gave it a 3-0 approval, but prior to a vote of the full school board, he had a change of heart and recommended overriding the superintendent’s wishes and tabling the purchase until the Town Council has time to act.

The move may prove prudent.

Town Council member Bill Murray, on hand for the school board meeting, told The Breeze later that although he understands the benefits of such a sign for the high school, he expects the Town Council “will really have to look at” the proposed changes before approving.

Both Morris and McKee are convinced electronic signs can be an improvement over the current collection of commercial signs. She’s moving forward with the informal support of a citizen committee Morris put together in advance of proposing changes.

One member, conservationist Frank Matta, said the group was generally supportive of the electronic replacements, provided they don’t move.

One business that’s expressed interest in a new remotely-controlled sign, say officials, is Angelo’s Palace Pizza on Mendon Road.

A copy of the ordinance was expected early this week but wasn’t available at press time.

But Morris told the Breeze, “There’ll be no animation and it will change at a limited speed. It’s all about new technology. You want to keep up with existing technology.”

Morris adds that amendments have been worked on for months and the school sign proposal comes as a coincidence.

McKee, who counters that he offered no promises to Thornton and Prignano, does say he support the lighted signs, pointing out that they would be neater than the varied changeable letter signs around town.

On the other hand, he calls the J.A. Appliance sign “a psychedelic experience” that would be continued to be outlawed.

“We don’t want it out of control, we want to control it, but reflect the times we’re living in.”

Signs that substitute letters when one letter is missing “look pretty pathetic” he said. “It will clean it up. It makes sense.”

He also notes that gas stations in town have already been permitted to change advertised prices electronically because the manual numbers were outlawed as dangerous on a federal basis.

The School Department was forging ahead on this sign plan this summer when an application for a permit by Dion met with a flat refusal by Building Commissioner Neil Hall.

Hall, who hasn’t seen the proposed sign ordinance but opposes electronic signs whether fixed or moving, said he worries Cumberland “will look like Las Vegas. It gets out of control,” he said. “You drive the street, and it just looks ridiculous.” Especially, he said, compared to a town “with some class” that bans them, he said.

Morris, too, used the Las Vegas comparison, but said Cumberland’s plan will avoid that look by not allowing them to move.

The new ordinance will also address the question of temporary signs that spring up around town to advertise baseball and Cub Scout sign-ups, festivals, pumpkin farms, Christmas tree sales, and the like. They would be allowed on private property for a limited number of weeks, under the new rules.

Ironically, Cumberland’s current sign ordinance was recommended by a committee headed by Morris, when she served on the Town Council, that revamped the entire zoning code.

It was adopted in October of 2009, putting an end to any new electronic signs.

Councilors are expected to get their first look at the proposed ordinance at their Aug. 21 meeting. The soonest they can vote on an ordinance is the following meeting, though few ordinances fly that quickly.

Generally, the council’s own ordinance subcommittee, as well as the Planning Board, review proposals like these. In this case, however, Morris, working a step ahead, has already distributed an outline of her suggestions to the Planning Board, which meets again on Aug. 28, in time for the Sept. 4 council meeting.


I would like the committee to uphold the ban on computerized signs, including stagnant one. . They are very distracting and dangerous for anyone with night vision. The Anchor Nissan dealer on Rt 146 installed one last year and I hate driving by it every night as I cannot see the intersection. I wrote them several times but of course, money is king, not safety or peoples “comfort”.
I thank you for voicing our opinion at the next council meeting.

Let's be cautious about making this change. These signs are ugly and distracting. They may be a good idea for the high school. But, I do not think businesses should be allowed to use them. In fact, we should be working to reduce the signs in general.

About those promotional signs. The town is the biggest offender. Do we really need hundreds of signs (8 at some intersections) advertising things like Cumberlandfest or the July concert? No. We do not.

Towns and municipalities have affirmed that digital billboards can play an important role in their communities. Digital boards are utilized throughout the U.S. to display Amber Alerts, Silver Alerts, emergency weather alerts, Homeland Security bulletins and public safety messages. Digital billboards have been instrumental in helping the FBI and other law enforcement agencies catch dozens of criminals after their profiles have been publicized. These benefits can assist operators in the zoning and permitting process, as communities increasingly see tangible benefits to digital billboards.
Jeanne Sullivan Evans