MONTPELIER — It wouldn’t be Barre if it wasn’t gray, and that’s apparently as true of the blue banners that now line North Main Street as it is of the community’s signature granite.
This week the state’s Travel Information Council had the opportunity to send a clear signal about the questionable content of Barre’s banners and didn’t.
On a day when the minority ruled, an admittedly gray area involving the state’s 45-year-old sign law got a little bit grayer, Barre’s blue banners were spared, and questions about whether it would be prudent to include the names of sponsoring businesses on their soon-to-be-ordered holiday season replacements weren’t answered.
Following what was described as a “lively discussion” the council voted, 3-2, in favor of writing a letter to Barre officials notifying them that the downtown banners violated the state’s sign law, and encouraging them to drop the “courtesy of” language that gives a nod to local sponsors from a new batch of banners that are about to be ordered. The letter also would have suggested the city work with the Barre Partnership and relevant state agencies on obtaining clarification from the Legislature about an arguably ambiguous law.
That, in a nutshell, is what the letter would have said if, that is, three votes were enough to carry the day on a seven-member panel that is responsible for administering the law that bans billboards and other off-premise roadside advertising.
As is the case with Barre’s own City Council, it takes four votes for the Travel Information Council to pass anything, and on a day with two members absent, a simple majority wasn’t enough. The, 3-2, vote in favor of the motion to send the letter technically failed.
The procedural quirk capped a 20-minute discussion that Amy Gamble, traffic operations engineer for the state Agency of Transportation, said boiled down to a debate over the “letter of the law and legislative intent.”
According to Gamble, committee members generally agreed Barre’s banners qualified as “outdoor advertising” as defined in the law, but were divided over whether Legislature intended to prohibit that sort of sponsorship when it passed the sign law.
“Absent a legislative fix nothing was resolved today,” Gamble said.
It sure sounded that way to Mayor Thomas Lauzon, who wasn’t able to attend the meeting on what he has dubbed “Banner-gate.”
“It really puts us in … limbo,” Lauzon said of a non-decision that did nothing to clarify the central issue that has held up the Barre Partnership’s finalizing an order for holiday banners.
Lauzon said he will be sitting this one out.
“I can’t knowingly advocate that the Partnership letter the banners (with the names of sponsoring businesses) but they are the partnership’s banners,” he said. “It’s their call.”
Lauzon reiterated his belief that the Legislature could resolve the issue by creating a carefully tailored exemption for banners similar to those that have been on display in downtown Barre for months. Allowing a suitably sized nod to sponsors on banners displayed in designated Vermont downtowns would do the trick, he said.
“I’m definitely going to pursue that (legislation),” he said.
The city has already addressed concerns that some of the banners blocked directional signs — a second issue raised by Gamble — by moving the signs to make them more easily visible to motorists.
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