BILLERICA -- Selectmen rejected placing the controversial proposed sign bylaw on the Town Meeting warrant last week, meaning Town Meeting representatives will not have a chance to vote on it next month.
With large, hand-painted signs becoming part of town elections in the last two years, and some residents getting fed up with the trend, the town had proposed a bylaw that would have enacted a 6-square-foot sign maximum, as well as add a minimum 10-foot-sign buffer zone from the road to ensure drivers' safety.
However, at a special meeting Thursday, selectmen voted against placing the controversial sign bylaw on the warrant.
"I think our history suggests to us that if something fails, then people are less inclined to take another bite of the apple, and we need to be cognizant of that," said Selectman John Piscatelli. "We need to think the article will pass and then take it to Town Meeting.
"We need input from a broader group of people and feel really good about it first," he added.
Selectmen Andrew Deslaurier was the lone vote of support to bring it to Town Meeting, while Piscatelli, Selectmen Chairman Mike Rosa and Selectman George Simolaris opposed placing it on the warrant.
Selectman Dan Burns was communicating remotely from his business trip out of the country, but he had to board a flight before they voted. He was expected to vote against it.
"There are sections of the bylaw that are fine, but we need to have more debate and discussion before we approve it," Burns said remotely.
The political-sign bylaw, proposed by Building Commissioner Mark LaLumiere, would have enacted a 6-square-foot sign maximum, as well as restricted property owners to four signs per lot.
In addition, the bylaw would have added a minimum 10-foot-sign buffer zone from the road, and it would have placed a time restriction for how long signs can be up before and after an election.
Simolaris and former selectman candidate Rome Capobianco painted large signs for the April election, and some residents complained to the town, calling the signs "eyesores hurting the town's reputation."
However, unless a sign was on public property or caused a public-safety hazard, the town would not enforce the current 1-square-foot-size restriction bylaw. That's because all political campaign signs in Billerica violated the size restriction.
"There's a concern that this is an attempt to stifle people's First Amendment rights, and this is absolutely the opposite," Town Manager John Curran told selectmen before they voted on Thursday.
"We made the decision to not enforce the bylaw at all, but it's opened the floodgates to anything goes in town," he added. "Therefore, we have to do something. This is not a knee-jerk reaction. This allows residents to express themselves under the First Amendment. It's well-thought out, and it doesn't need to be delayed another year."
LaLumiere also gave his pitch for the bylaw before selectmen voted, saying there were no politics involved in drafting the bylaw. Cities and towns frequently have regulations dealing with the size of political signs, how many signs can be on a property, and how long signs can be up during election season, he said.
LaLumiere pointed to Chelmsford, Bedford and Lexington as a few area towns with sign-bylaw language that mirrors the proposed Billerica bylaw.
"It's not something out of the ordinary to draft a zoning bylaw," LaLumiere said. "It's not being more restrictive than what we currently have."
But the majority of selectmen were not on board with the proposed bylaw. Piscatelli said the intent of the bylaw is great, but changes need to be made before it heads to a future Town Meeting.
He opposed the 6-square-foot sign maximum because election signs are usually only displayed for 30 days, and the 10-foot sign buffer zone from the road could be changed to "can't block sight-lines," he added.
Simolaris also said the 10-foot setback is not the way to go. It should be a case-by-case basis because some residents have fences and bushes close to the road, he said.
"Safety is paramount of course, and if it's obstructing traffic, then it needs to go," Simolaris said. "But this is a touchy situation, and it's our constitutional right to free speech. I am against this bylaw the way it stands now."
Deslaurier, the only selectman to approve placing it on the Town Meeting warrant, said he wanted to give Town Meeting the opportunity to vote on it.
"I'm not saying I'll support it or not on the Town Meeting floor, but I support giving Town Meeting the opportunity to debate it," Deslaurier said. "That's what we're being asked to do here."
But the three other selectmen agreed the bylaw should be ironed out before it heads to a final vote.
"I think we need to address some of the issues by putting it off until the fall," according to Rosa, who also said the four-sign limit per lot is too restrictive.
"We can make a subcommittee to work with you (LaLumiere) on this, and brainstorm with any other groups in town. Putting this off will help fix the deficiencies we brought up tonight."
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