Bethel selectmen object to Savage MDOT signs
“Somebody got to the top,” said Chairman Stan Howe.
Bethel selectmen reacted at Monday’s board meeting to the news last week that by order of Gov. Paul LePage and the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, two temporary MDOT directional signs would be erected on Route 2 on either side of the Sunday River Road intersection, to point the way to the Black Diamond Steakhouse.
Steakhouse owners Ron and Rick Savage have said the town was being too slow in implementing its recently-amended sign ordinance, costing them the opportunity to advertise their business in the summer months.
Bethel has a memorandum of understanding with MDOT allowing the town to administer directional signs on state routes.
But Town Manager Jim Doar said the state’s move violates the town ordinance approved by townspeople, as well as the state’s own permitting process.
He described the action as “unconscionable,” but said Bethel’s only recourse would be to sue the state. He didn’t recommend that. “We’d be tilting at windmills,” he said.
Selectman Don Bennett said the message from MDOT was that the town could go ahead and try to stop the signs from being installed, but by the time the process was done the permanent town signs would be up and it would be a moot point.
“You kind of felt as though something was really in your face,” he said. “[Being a selectman] is not an easy job to do, and it doesn’t help any when your governor decides that it’s a bad time for everybody and we’re just going to overrule you.”
The signs are now in place.
But Doar didn’t recommend letting the issue go. He said he would work on a statement for the board to send to MDOT, “in the strongest terms, for stepping over us. We will continue to press.”
Doar also shared with the board letters the town and MDOT exchanged last week over the issue.
MDOT Chief Counsel Toni Kemmerle said in a July 11 letter that MDOT has the right to take action because the town’s ordinance is “not fully operational and administrable,” because the town has yet to contract with a sign manufacturer and installer.
The ordinance would become administrable when the town has a contract with a manufacturer/installer, and the temporary signs would then be removed, Kemmerle said.
Bethel had requested bids by July 10 for an eight-week timetable for completion – an ‘expedited’ schedule, in Doar’s words – but no bids were received.
MDOT also asked Doar to sign an agreement with the Commissioner specifically for the two signs for the Black Diamond.
Doar said his response was “I don’t think we’re interested in an agreement, but we’re certainly not interested in an agreement that limits it to just this. If you're going to install temporary signs, make every business in the town of Bethel eligibile for it.” “‘They said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’”
In a letter back to Kemmerle July 12, Doar said the ordinance is administrable and enforceable. “The town is prepared to begin issuing sign permits as soon as it receives applications,” he said. He said there are no standards in the ordinance, the MOU or state law regarding the timeliness of the town’s actions in putting up the signs.
“MDOT has failed to point to any legal authority that provides the ability for MDOT to interject into the Town’s business directional sign program based upon a subjective measurement of reasonable time; particularly in light of the fact that the ordinance passed only one month ago and the Town has been working diligently and on an expedited basis to procure a contractor for the project.”
Doar also said MDOT did not follow its own regulations in giving the Black Diamond a sign permit, noting the regulations require an applicant to “provide certification from an appropriate municipal official that the proposed sign is in conformity with all applicable municipal sign ordinances. I am not aware of any such certification being issued by the Town, nor would the Town be able to provide said certification.”
Doar added the Black Diamond was the only business that contacted MDOT, and the only one that chose not to participate in the prior directional sign program. “It is Black Diamond’s own actions that have left them without a legal business directional sign,” he said.
In March Bennett said that the Savages had not requested a sign at the intersection of the Sunday River Road under the old program because they did not believe it worked.
As for the next step in contracting with a company to make signs for Bethel, selectmen Monday authorized Doar to talk to potential contractors and get price quotes. The board will hold a special meeting July 24 at 5 p.m. to approve a bidder.