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Ordinance rewrite would regulate signs by location, not content

The Town Council will hold a public hearing Jan. 9, 2017 on a proposed rewrite of the sign ordinance.

The sign ordinance has long been in need of reorganization and revision, but a U.S. Supreme Court decision has set that revision on a fast track, said Town Councilor Jessica Sullivan at the Dec. 12, 2016 meeting.

The ruling in June 2015 found the sign ordinance in Gilbert, Ariz. violated the First Amendment rights of a local church by limiting the size of signs announcing services or other events.

"What this means is that signs cannot be regulated by content," said Sullivan, a member of the council's ordinance subcommittee which has been reviewing Cape Elizabeth's ordinance for compliance with the ruling. "We can regulate signs in the town of Cape Elizabeth by time, manner and location - but not by content," Sullivan said.

The result is a proposal to regulate signs by location, including townwide, residential and business zones.

Signs currently allowed by the ordinance will be allowed to remain, and with a permit may be replaced if they are damaged or wear out.

The proposal prohibits electronic message board signs, such as the one at Cumberland Farms in the town center. The current ordinance prohibits internally lit signs, but is unclear about newer technologies such as LED. The Cumberland Farms sign would be allowed as a grandfathered sign.

The proposal also continues to prohibit banner signs across public roadways.

Councilor Caitlin Jordan, who headed the ordinance committee in 2016, said the council may want to have a workshop on the proposed revisions after the hearing. "I think this took a lot for the ordinance committee to understand and go through," she said. "It might be necessary to bring everybody up to the same speed - but I also think it might be important to get input from the public first," she said.

Updating the sign ordinance is a Town Council goal for 2016. The ordinance committee is also recommending the town look into updating policies on municipal message boards so they comply with the Supreme Court ruling.

The sign ordinance was last updated in March 2015, when political signs were allowed on public rights-of-way.