TOPSHAM — The Planning Board on Feb. 17, will review draft ordinance language to regulate the frequency of change and placement of digital business signs.
The board heard feedback from business owners in workshop sessions at its Jan. 6 and Feb. 3 meetings, and that feedback will be taken into account in the crafting of the language.
At the first of those meetings the board proposed allowing Topsham’s few existing digital signs to remain but not to permit others, as well as to allow current signs to show four different messages a day and change no fewer than every four hours.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Planning Director Rich Roedner presented the state’s language on changeable signs, which states that such a sign can change no more than once every 20 minutes, “unless the municipality in which the sign is located adopts an ordinance to the contrary and notifies the Department of Transportation in writing of that ordinance.”
Municipalities can allow signs to change as frequently as every two seconds. The question before Topsham is what frequency is optimal for delivering complete information to passing drivers without distracting them.
“We’ve got some of these in our town now,” board member Steve Mathieu said. “We should look at where they’re allowed, how they operate.”
He added that the board should “lock down” where the signs are permitted, suggesting they be allowed in “the commercial areas only, where it makes sense.”
Mathieu pointed out that sign technology is changing, and that the town should change with it, arguing that the signs “don’t look bad. … It’s businesses trying to get an edge up, it’s taking advantage of technology to communicate in new ways.”
“We need to be prepared to support business in this town in a way that doesn’t necessarily hurt our quality of life,” Mathieu said, “because only so many people are going to invest in this. … You’re not going to see 30 of them littered down the mall … and we haven’t seen it to date.”
There are four commercial digital signs in Topsham, as well as a public information digital sign – located along Route 196 at Harry C. Crooker & Sons  – which shows only time and temperature.
Board member Don Russell said Mathieu is “on the right page” and expressed his support for the regulations laid out in the state language.
Fellow member Michael Colleran said he considers digital signs more attractive than ” a lot of the colorful, internally-lit signs that are out there, so I really don’t see a reason to restrict them beyond state restrictions,” except for limiting them to certain zones.
Mike Foley of Five County Credit Union, which has a digital sign, pointed out that an eight-word message, fit into a limited amount of sign space for 20 minutes, could be split into a two-part message broadcast over a quicker interval, allowing larger text to be displayed at a time and improving readability.
Mathieu said he disliked the idea of two-second signs. “Whenever you change that sign, if it’s 20 minutes, five minutes, one minute, there’s going to be a driver driving by it that’s going to see it change and be drawn to it,” he said. “But to have every driver drive by it, and have it be a two-point message, I think that just doesn’t fly.”
Paul Lessard of Neokraft Signs in Lewiston said a 2005 study by the Colorado Department of Transportation, funded by the Federal Highway Administration, said variable message displays with panels displayed every two to four seconds were optimal, as opposed to blinking messages.
“The slower the changes, the more information a user is going to want to pack onto it,” Lessard said. “And the more information, the longer the reader, the driver, is going to want to look at it to get the message.”
Referring to one sign he saw with four lines of copy displayed in 4 1/2-inch letters and changing every 20 minutes, Lessard said, “it’s like putting the classified ads out there and saying ‘hey, read this.'”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or [email protected]

filed under: