WESTERLY — Use of the south side of the billboard at the base of Union Street is now officially permitted, but despite the desire of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, which owns the sign, and its members, the billboard cannot be moved.
The council on Monday wrestled with changes to the zoning ordinance that pertain to the billboard, ultimately approving, by a 7-0 vote, changes that will authorize use of the south side but voting 4-3 in favor of a motion to prohibit future movement of the sign to a different location.
Councilors Jean Gagnier, Jack Carson, Mario Celico and Philip Overton voted in favor of the motion to prohibit moving the billboard. Councilors William Aiello, Karen Cioffi and Edward Morrone were opposed.
The south side of the billboard was never outfitted for complete advertising use but the chamber has permitted nonprofit organizations to hang banners to promote various events. Celico, a former chairman of the Planning Board, noted that use of the south side was technically not allowed under town regulations before the council’s vote on Monday.
The Planning Board, Zoning Board of Review, and Architectural Review Board all opposed the proposal to allow the billboard to be removed.
Lisa Konicki, Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce president, said the chamber needed the ability to move the billboard in case the town-owned property where it stands is sold or developed differently. The chamber originally sought only formal permission to use the south side of the billboard. During a previous meeting, council members suggested allowing the chamber to renovate the sign for complete use of the south side.
To absorb the $10,000 to $14,000 cost of renovating the sign to make the south side usable in the same way as the north side, Konicki said it would be necessary for the chamber to sometimes charge for-profit businesses for use of the south side.
“We would love to be able to improve the look of the sign and the aesthetics of downtown and to be able to accommodate nonprofits, but somebody has to be able to help us pay for that sign,” Konicki said.
Gagnier said that allowing the use of the south side of the billboard but not allowing it to be moved represented a compromise. He noted that no new billboards are allowed in Westerly. Overton said he was hesitant to vote against the recommendations of the three boards.
“I’m going to support our boards, but if the south side has revenue generating ability to the chamber I don’t have any problem with that,” he said.
Some councilors noted that the proposed language related to moving the billboard would have required the Town Council to approve a proposed move. Morrone said Main Street has undergone significant change over time and praised the chamber’s work on behalf of the town. “We’re talking about a time-tested organization here that has done itself and the town proud over decades and I trust their judgment with regard to the economics and the fairness of the use,” he said.
Allowing the sign to move would add to the total number of billboards in town, Aiello said. “There would just be a mechanism in place to allow it to be relocated,” he said.
Angie Smith, administrator of the Westerly Medical Center, asked the council to approve the changes requested by the chamber. “To allow the back side to be built will accommodate the marketing needs of more organizations and enhance the appearance of the sign,” she said.
Planning Board Chairman James A. Hall IV praised the council for its deliberate approach.
“I truly appreciate the great balancing job this council has done tonight to support the chamber and to support small businesses and at the same time trying to recognize a global vision and adhere to our Comprehensive Plan,” Hall said.
In related business, the council approved changes to the municipal sign ordinance that are intended to make it easier for small business owners.
Under the amended ordinance, the fee for small signs and changes to them will be reduced from a minimum of $780 to $5 per square foot for signs under 36 square feet, and $10 per square foot for larger signs. The amendments also allow for approval of smaller signs by the town’s staff, rather than requiring applicants to seek approval from the planning and zoning boards.