WESTERLY — The meaning of the words replace, repair, maintain, and new could now be parsed by a Superior Court judge following the Zoning Board of Review’s vote to uphold the municipal zoning officer’s decision to deny a permit for a sign put up outside the Sandy Shore Motel in December.
On Wednesday lawyers for the board and the motel owner as well as board members themselves consulted dictionaries as they tried to determine whether the sign should be considered new or whether it was the original sign with a different look resulting from maintenance.
Ultimately, the board voted 4 -1 to uphold Zoning Officer Nathan Reichert’s decision in the case. Board members Walter Pawelkiewicz, Albert Clemence, John Ornberg, and Larry Cioppa voted to uphold the decision. Board member Douglas Brockway voted against upholding Reichert’s decision saying he believed the work performed on the sign was maintenance and did not amount to a new sign.
Gene Arganese, the motel owner, first put a readable LED sign up on the front of the Atlantic Avenue facility in 2006. That sign quickly became the subject of zoning and legal battles between the town and Arganese which culminated in 2009 when a judge determined the sign was grandfathered or a legal, nonconforming one that pre-dated the town’s zoning regulations. The judge also declared that the sign could only be replaced with one that conformed to the town’s sign ordinance at the time it was replaced. The current ordinance prohibits LED message signs except for ones advertising gasoline prices, denoting a facility is open, or displaying the time and temperature.
Arganese uses the sign at his Atlantic Avenue motel to advertise room availability and costs.
On Wednesday Reichert said he noticed a crane in the vicinity of the motel in December and drove over to get a closer look. Although the crane was related to a different project, when Reichert went to the motel he said he observed a crew working on the sign. Photographs of the original sign as compared to the current sign show a distinct difference, Reichert said.
“You see the size of the sign is vastly different...it’s clear that it’s a different sign,” Reichert said.
Steven Surdut, Arganese’s lawyer, said what Reichert witnessed was “maintenance and repair” of the existing sign and said a notice of violation and subsequent denial of a sign permit was an effort by the town to force Arganese to get rid of the sign. But Surdut said state courts have consistently supported a property owner’s right to maintain grandfathered property uses. Otherwise he said, “every town” would look for ways to force property owners into compliance with current zoning regulations.
Arganese said the sign contractor he hired replaced the sign’s casing, bulbs, and contacts that had rusted out. “It’s the same exact sign, the same lighting the same type of bulbs,” Arganese said. The bill for maintaining the sign was $3,700 as compared to the cost of a new sign which Arganese said would be several thousand dollars more.
Clemence asked Zoning Board Solicitor Nancy LeTendre to explain the difference between maintenance performed on an existing sign and installation of a new sign. Because the terms are not defined in the town’s regulations, LeTendre said it was necessary to consider the “plain meaning” of the words. She then read a definition of maintenance. Cioppa later read a definition of maintenance from a different dictionary.
Brockway said that while he likely would have agreed with Reichert’s assessment on the day that Reichert observed work being done on the sign, the testimony he heard from Arganese and comments from Surdot changed his mind.
“This sounds like maintenance of a sign system,” Brockway said.
Ornberg made the motion to uphold Reichert’s decision and read the board’s findings of facts. The board issues findings of fact with all of its decisions. Surdot asked who authored the findings of facts and when they were written. He also asked if findings of fact to support the board possibly ruling not to support Reichert’s decision had been prepared. Letendre said the findings of fact had been written by Ornberg during the meeting.
The board’s decision gives Arganese 30 days to remove the sign.
The issue came before the board after Washington County Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter asked the board to seek a resolution before ruling on a request for an injunction filed in the court on Arganese’s behalf in February. After the meeting on Wednesday, Arganese said he planned to continue pursuing the case in court.
“It’s sad that the board would put a business owner through the undue expenses of a court battle. It’s damaging,” Arganese said.