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 City Manager Letter

November 1, 2010

To the Honorable, the City Council:

In response to Awaiting Report Item Number 10-164, regarding a report on outlining the ordinance changes to the Zoning Ordinance as it pertains to signs and the impact of repealing Paragraph D3 and E of Ordinance #1335, please be advised of the following:

On September 27, 2010 the Cambridge City Council adopted a series of amendments to Article 7.000 of the Zoning Ordinance that regulates signs in the city. Some of the changes generated heated discussion and opposition during the deliberations leading up to their adoption. Opposition has continued in the form of a citizen referendum that requires the City Council to reconsider its vote. As the Council reconsiders its vote, it is important to clarify the nature of the changes that have been made. To date, the discussion has been dominated by misunderstanding and exaggeration about the actions the City has taken. While there are differing opinions about the wisdom of the policy changes that have been made, those differences of opinion should be based on an accurate understanding of what actually has been done.

At issue are two of the six provisions that were recently adopted.  The first would allow signs, on the façade of buildings in a limited number of commercial districts in east and west Cambridge, to be placed higher on a building than twenty feet above the ground. Twenty feet was the maximum height allowed in the regulations prior to the changes adopted in September.  In addition, such higher signs  - if placed at the top of a six or seven story office building  - would be allowed to be 90 square feet in area, an increase from the maximum 60 square feet previously permitted in the regulations for signs lower than 20 feet above ground. 

The recent amendments provide that these signs may only be permitted after a hearing before the Planning Board and only if a proposed sign (or signs) conforms to enumerated and detailed limitations that ensure that the sign will not be visually intrusive or dominant in its commercial neighborhood. Among those limitations: there can be no more than two signs per building; the signs may only consist of individual letters and symbols; may only be lighted from the outside (no bright florescent-lit signs with plastic faces); and the areas of all signs on any building, including any new higher signs, may not be increased beyond the total area allowed since adoption of the current sign ordinance in 1991. 

Signs permissible under the new amendments cannot fairly be characterized as billboards; indeed, no speculation is necessary to evaluate the impact of signs erected under the new zoning provisions, as many such signs currently exist quite unobtrusively, permitted in the past by a variance from the Board of Zoning Appeal: ADDRESSES OF SUCH SIGNS/PICTURES.   The real visual impact of such signs, available for all to see, is much less unsettling than the exaggerations currently circulating.

The second amendment provision in contention is unrelated to the issue of signs high up on the facade of a building.  This provision allows the Planning Board to approve a plan for all signs that will be allowed on a lot, after a public hearing on a proposed plan.     In order to approve such a proposed plan the Planning Board must consider the building context and review the specific dimensional and lighting limitations related to individual signs types (i.e. wall signs or projecting signs or freestanding signs), which now are imposed without regard to specific local circumstances.    This new provision recognizes that the current one-size-fits-all standards don't always serve the best interests of individual store owners or the public. What might work well for a large suburban-style shopping center differs from the needs of a series of small stores on a narrow side street in Harvard Square. The new provision would enable the City to respond to individual circumstances with considered flexibility.  And, for the first time, this provision provides leverage to the City to encourage property owners to remove some large and garish signs, erected decades ago, that continue to blight our landscape, in exchange for the flexibility provided by this new regulation. Notably, this provision does not allow more signs on a property than have been allowed since adoption of the current ordinance in 1991, and the twenty foot height restriction continues to apply.

Why propose these changes?   The prescriptive standards in place since 1991 generally provided a reasonable balance of adequate visibility for the retail and business enterprises that make Cambridge such a vibrant place, while at the same time protecting the basic quality and harmony of our shared visual environment.  Nevertheless, over the twenty years of administering the sign regulations, the Planning Board, Board of Zoning Appeals, and City staff have found that the prescriptive nature of our current sign regulations can produce odd, ill-fitting and sometimes bad results; at times resulting in losing the opportunity for a much better sign design and a more engaging public environment; often with the result that the legitimate needs of a Cambridge business cannot be well-served.   In the past, a property owner's only route for approval of such signage was to seek a variance; but that approach is bad public policy, as these matters seldom rise to the "hardship" standards required for the grant of a variance.  It is better to acknowledge the positive benefits of limited flexibility and provide a process by which good design and the legitimate interests of our business communities can be served, without harming the visual quality of our public environment. The City Council recognized this in adopting the sign ordinance changes, and all Cambridge residents can be well served by these improvements to the sign ordinance.

With respect to the question of the cost taxpayers would incur as a result of holding a special election to dispose of the referendum petition, I have determined that the cost would be approximately $170,000.

The City Solicitor advises that the options that the City Council has in responding to the referendum petition are dictated by statute as follows.  The referendum signatures were certified to the City Council by the Election Commissioners on October 20, 2010.  Upon that certification the protested measure or parts thereof are suspended from taking effect.  The City Council must reconsider the protested provisions within twenty days of the certification (in this instance City Council action must occur by no later than November 9, 2010).  If the City Council does not "entirely rescind" the protested provisions, then the Election Commissioners must place a question on the ballot either at the next regular City Election which is not less than thirty days after the twentieth day following certification (which would be the November election for 2011), or at a special election which the City Council may, in its discretion, call for the purpose.  At that election a question must be placed on the ballot by the Election Commission stating "Do you agree with the measure summarized below?" followed by a fair, concise summary of the protested measure or part thereof as determined by the City Solicitor.  In this instance, the voters would be asked if they agreed with the City Council's ordination of Section 7.16.22 (D)(3) and Section 7.16.22 (E) of the Zoning Ordinance, with a summary of those sections provided on the ballot.




Very truly yours,








Robert W. Healy


City Manager




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