Illuminated sign request for 640 Memorial Drives raises concerns about sign ordinance

I have attached a note I wrote to the BZA about the sign ordinance variance request for 640 Memorial Drive.  While this variance is about signs, one major underlying issue is that the sign in question is illuminated so I thought  that people concerned about lights in general might want to at least be aware of this request even if they feel no particular need to weigh in.

I understand that not everyone feels the same way about signs, with some folks viewing them as a visual affront, others as a waste of energy and still others as an important piece of creating and maintaining a vibrant economy.  Having spent Friday morning at a Fire Fighter awards and badge presentation ceremony, I am more of the opinion that what makes Cambridge competitive for commercial interests from a City perspective are professional services like our Class I Fire Department, one of only about 53 in the entire US.  CPD, inspectional services, our own water department (remember when the MWRA had a major system failure a few years back) and so forth round out what I am often told that commercial interests view as a very professional set of City departments.  Add MIT, Harvard, MBTA access and so forth to the mix and I think you create a place that draws in the businesses that in many ways form the heart of the regional economy.  The ability to light up one’s roof with signs does not strike me as being particularly important and, more problematically, is, I think, likely to lead to a jumble of signs like in Manhattan that does little to allow any one particular sign or business to brand itself.

Anyway, here’s my letter:

Dear BZA Members:

I write in opposition to variance request 10466 for an illuminated sign at 640 Memorial Drive in violation of Chapter 7 of the CZO.  As you may remember, the City Council visited the greater issue of expanding allowable signs a few years ago and, after much public angst, chose not to change the Ordinance.  And as you may also know, the Council is currently exploring, and many members have expressed support for, a change to our light ordinance to address light trespass issues throughout the City.

Given the Council’s past decision not to expand permissible signs and its current focus on addressing City-wide light concerns, I think it would be best for the BZA not to approve this variance request from a public policy standpoint.  While one cannot peer far into the future, I would be concerned that the light and sign issues pertaining to the Charles River skyline that helped focus public concern on the proposed zoning changes in the past would be sidestepped by a precedent-setting variance and we would have difficulty explaining why other, similar signs should not be approved.  If the City would like to allow these signs, I think it should be done through the City Council.

I also have difficulty understanding how this request meets the relatively tight criteria for a variance, though I do understand that our use of variances is often viewed as a way to effectively implement a fairly clunky planning tool.  In this case, I do not think the requested relief is appropriate, though.

As always, I would be happy to discuss this issue, or the larger issue of how our zoning code might be adapted to better serve our City, with any of the Board members should there be such a desire.

Thank you very much for your attention to this issue and your service to the City.

Sincerely,

Craig A. Kelley

Cambridge City Council

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