In a bid to maintain the traditional look of its downtown, the Searsport Select Board is asking voters to ban electronic signs from the exteriors of buildings in the historic districts and other historical sites at the annual town meeting in March.
The town first pitched the amendment to voters at the 2022 town meeting, but voters denied the measure. The town has revived the amendment this year with an additional clause that grandfathers in businesses that erected signs prior to the March 11 vote.
The restriction is a part of a larger movement to bolster the look of downtown Searsport, bring in more businesses and attract more visitors. It comes alongside a Maine Department of Transportation project to revamp Main Street’s roadway and sidewalks, adding brick pathways, granite curbs and lamp posts.
That project went out to bid this month
“The historic preservation commission is trying to keep that area looking somewhat traditional and the feeling was that the changeable LED signs distracted from an historic district,” Select Board member Mark Bradstreet said.
The warrant article would amend the town’s Changeable Sign Ordinance to prohibit people from displaying “changeable electronic signs” — the town’s term for LED signs — in front of buildings located in the Historic Districts or designated as a historic place on the National Historic Registry.
Though the town’s historic sites and districts are spread apart, the 27 houses, buildings and blocks are mostly concentrated around two miles of Route 1 in Searsport, from west to east Main Street, according to a 2016 map.
The town’s Historic Preservation Commission is the driver behind the amendment.
The amendment won’t entirely eradicate LED signs on Main Street. For one, historic blocks in the downtown are sandwiched in between non-historic buildings like Tozier’s Family Market and the old Grasshopper Shop location that wouldn’t have to follow these restrictions. And with the grandfather clause, buildings like the Methodist Church can keep existing LED signs.
“They may not accomplish what they’re looking for. It’s hard to tell,” Town Manager James Gillway said.
Bradstreet said this amendment isn’t intended to be a sweeping measure. Rather, it’s a first crack at regulating the look of downtown.
“The historic district commission could propose something more stringent in the future,” he said.
Even so, Bradstreet said the commission is not trying to deter businesses from coming to Searsport. That’s why even if the amendment is approved, businesses will still be able to hang LED signs inside their store windows.
“We don’t want to make it so stringent that there is a sense of ‘I don’t want to locate there,’” he said. “It’s got to be a balancing that allows businesses to operate and still keep the historic flavor to the district, which is what helps bring in business.”