WESTERLY — After a lengthy administrative slog that saw an ordinance revised and then changed back again, the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce is poised to improve the advertising billboard it maintains at the junction of Main and Union streets.
By a unanimous 7-0 vote on Monday, the Town Council voted to adopt a new ordinance pertaining to the chamber-owned billboard. The vote will have the effect of undoing a change approved by the previous council on Nov. 5.
The serpentine tale began in June when chamber President Lisa Konicki and Bruce Morrow, then chairman of the chamber's board of directors, appeared before the council to discuss plans to seek formal permission to use the back of the billboard and to improve the front of the billboard with lighting as well as plans for an 11- by 23-foot sign at the chamber's office on Chamber Way.
The chamber had for years used the back of the Union Street billboard to advertise events for nonprofit organizations. The council suggested improving the rear side of the billboard, and with input from Town Attorney William J. Conley Jr., asked the chamber to pursue its plans according to the municipal sign ordinance, which requires review by the town's land use boards.
The chamber eventually dropped its plans for the Chamber Way sign and then returned to the council in October after receiving negative recommendations for the billboard plans from the planning, zoning and architectural review boards. The council, despite the negative recommendations from the boards, voted in November to allow use of the rear side of the billboard but to remove language from the ordinance that authorized the chamber to move the billboard to a different location as long as the billboard remained the same size or smaller and the move was approved by the council.
The chamber then sought estimates on the cost of improvements to the billboard, some of which were suggested by Town Planner Rui Almeida, and learned that the work would cost $16,800, far more then an earlier estimate of $12,000. Faced with the hefty price tag, the chamber's board voted not to proceed unless the "safety net language" allowing the billboard to be moved was restored. Konicki stressed that the chamber would never seek to move the billboard unless its current location, on town-owned property, was sold or developed.
In December, Konicki returned to the council, which was then populated with five new members, and asked that the language be restored. That request was followed by another visit to the Planning Board, which recommended extending the chamber's lease of the town property where the billboard is located as a means to protect the chamber's potential investment in improving the billboard, but again came out against giving the chamber the authority to move the billboard.
On Monday dozens of chamber members attended the council meeting to show their support for changing the ordinance back to the essence of what it said prior to the change in November. The chamber had previously submitted 70 letters of support from Westerly business owners.
Former Town Councilor Jean Gagnier asked the council not to restore the former language, saying it would set up a potential legal battle if owners of other billboards sought to move their signs. "This is about whether Westerly's ordinance would stand up in court ... it can't be arbitrary," he said.
The councilors were not persuaded by Gagnier. Councilor Sharon Ahern said she would not lightly vote against the Planning Board's recommendation but said she was persuaded by "mitigating" factors such as the chamber's assurance it would only move the billboard if it had to. Ahern, a lawyer, also said she understood Gagnier's points but added, "We don't have anyone else in town that is looking for this right and should that arise we will deal with it then," Ahern said.
Councilor Karen Cioffi said she would vote to restore the language as a means to preserve the town's "partnership" with the chamber.
According to material submitted to the town by the chamber, the billboard is a valuable marketing tool for local businesses. There is a three-year waiting list. It produces more than $20,000 in annual revenue for the chamber.