Bethel businesses wanting roadside signs must wait on state approval
The battle between the Town of Bethel and the Maine Department of Transportation over the implementation of the town’s amended directional sign ordinance continued this week, this time with the town accusing MDOT of dragging its feet on approving the ordinance.
As a result, said town officials, businesses wanting new signs that comply with the amendments must wait longer.
“We’re clearly not open for business,” said Bethel selectman Peter Southam at Monday's board meeting. “Perhaps we should drive down and remove Gov. LePage’s sign on the Maine Turnpike. It’s a lie. If they wanted us to be open for business they would approve this in the original manner.”
Bethel administers business directional signs on state roads through a memorandum of understanding with MDOT.
In mid-July MDOT, citing the time Bethel was taking to get its recently-amended sign ordinance “operational,” stepped in and put up temporary roadside directional signs on Route 2 for the Black Diamond Steak House.
A July 10 letter from an MDOT attorney outlining the agency's decision also said Bethel had not yet sought required written approval from the MDOT commissioner for the ordinance amendments.
In a followup letter the the next day, the attorney said that when the town had a contract in place with a sign company to make business signs, the ordinance would be operational and the temporary Black Diamond signs would come down in three days.
Before the Labor Day weekend, the town took down old signs for other area businesses in anticipation of new signs going up.
At Monday's selectmen's meeting Town Manager Jim Doar said contracts with signmakers were finalized Sept. 3 and sent to MDOT.
But Doar said he was then told by MDOT’s Chip Kelley in an e-mail Sept. 6 that although the MDOT Legal Department had reviewed the ordinance, the document now needed to be sent to the MDOT commissioner for approval.
“When the approval from the Commissioner is received, I will contact the Region 3 office in Dixfield and schedule the timely removal of the directional signs that were installed by MaineDOT,” Kelley’s e-mail was quoted by Doar as saying.
“Additionally, the department will send a letter stating its position regarding the Bethel sign ordinance. The department will also send duplicate originals of the sign agreement that will need to be signed by both the Town of Bethel and the MaineDOT Commissioner.”
The documents would be sent no later than Sept. 11, Doar was told.
Doar said he had sent the amended ordinance to MDOT for review in July, about the same time the department said it would put up the temporary Black Diamond signs.
As part of the most recent exchange, Doar said, the town's attorney contacted MDOT and noted its July letter had not made approval for the ordinance to become operational conditional on the commissioner's permission.
But a DOT attorney reiterated the ordinance approval was pending with the commissioner.
The ordinance documention had not been received by Monday, and two phone calls each since then from Doar and CEO Jeff Warden to MDOT have gone unanswered, Doar said.
“Given the fact they were concerned with how slowly we were moving to begin with, it’s infuriating,” Doar told selectmen.
He said that earlier this year an MDOT official had been involved as a special town committee crafted the amended ordinance, and final approval by the state should have been “perfunctory.” MDOT had said then it respected home rule, according to Doar, and although the changes would have to be approved by the agency, typically the only type of amendments that would prevent approval were more permissive ones.
Said selectman Don Bennett, “It’s very sad now because we have people who do want signs, who have been waiting patiently and quietly, and we can’t issue anything to start the work to help the people who need signs because the state will not respond to us. They’re not hurting us, they’re hurting the people who want these signs. You would think with all the rhetoric that comes out of there about being open for business that someone would get off their duff and review this and give us an answer.”
“It sounds retaliatory to me,” said selectman Pat Carter.
The board agreed that the town should contact the area’s legislative representatives, and possibly the governor, about the issue.
Doar said that so far only two businesses have applied for a new highway directional sign, and the Black Diamond is not one of them.