Those proliferating Woodstock sandwich board signs? They’re illegal

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The tourist swarms along Mill Hill Road and Tinker Street have slowed, and the snow hasn’t restricted walking on local sidewalks yet. Yet it can still take time in town, being a pedestrian, given the proliferation of sandwich board signage placed outside so many local businesses, from the gateway district where 375 touches 212 all the way to beyond the library.

Members of the Woodstock planning board said it was an enforcement issue and not in their purview.

“Sandwich boards per Woodstock Zoning are not allowed. It is a concern. Look again under 260-31 A.(1) ‘Sign regulations’ for what is permitted, or not,” noted long-term Commission for Civic Design (CCD) chairman David Ekroth in an email when asked about the nuisance recently. “The CCD reported this problem some years ago to the previous Building Inspector/ZEO (Zoning enforcement officer). There seems to be little/no enforcement.”

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“Sandwich Boards are not legal in Woodstock,” pointed out Woodstock building inspector and zoning enforcement officer Ellen Casciaro when asked about the problem. “I have issued violations for many of the offenders for years and continue to do so. I do not have the staff or the time in my day to pursue this violation. I have asked the store owners to please write to their elected officials to change the ordinance.”

We looked to the zoning law in question and it’s quite clear that sandwich boards are not allowed under any circumstances in Woodstock. This point was reiterated in a September 5, 2013 letter that Casciaro sent to all Woodstock businesses, and has shared ever since, which noted how, “Zoning Law 260-53 prohibits the display of merchandise and/or similar advertising devices between the face of a building or structure and the curb edge of a public driveway or thoroughfare.”

Casciaro’s 2013 letter, which she shared with Woodstock Times when asked about the sandwich board proliferation phenomenon in town last week, goes on to note how, “Many businesses are not in compliance with this law. Many of you are using sandwich boards.”

A look into the building department’s violation notice books of the past five years showed a number of Orders to Remedy issued to businesses ranging from Cumberland Farms and Woodstock Meats to Hawthorn Gallery for signs, including some placed in state Department of Transportation rights of way along Route 212 as it moves through town via Mill Hill Road and Tinker Street. A case study from such an Order to Remedy situation in the summer of 2015 demonstrated an inquiry made by Casciaro to the then-owners of the Woodstock Lodge for a sign that blocked vehicular traffic, “cabled to a sign post.” A talk with a property owner a week later resulted in an “upset owner “ telling Casciaro he would take it down.” But then the problem repeats itself again in the months to come.

As we went through her department’s books, Casciaro came into the office to complain about zoning law items that receive “zero compliance.” She spoke about the amount of time taken up by those cases that do make it to court, with some from 2011 still in the local judicial system.

“I need full time help; we can’t handle everything on part time,” she said, pointing out how limited her staffing has been, despite numerous requests to the Woodstock town board for a bit more budget. “Sandwich boards were a pet peeve of Jeff Moran when he was supervisor. But you know what? You can’t put that cat in the bag. Here we are four years on and there’s no difference in the situation.”

Asked about the building department’s requests for more full-time help, and more funding, Woodstock supervisor Bill McKenna said this week that the town board added $13,000 to Casciaro’s budget last month, or another 500 hours she could spend on enforcement work, and augment with unspent funds from the current year if she so chose.

“We’ve increased her hours and she still has time in her part-time budget to do with as she wants,” the supervisor said.

22 warnings

In her September, 2013 letter to local business owners, Casciaro had added, “I am aware that we are a tourist community and sandwich boards have become a common practice. I am asking that each business using a sandwich board keep it out of the pedestrian right-of-way and remove it each day at the close of business. I will be issuing violations to businesses that do not bring these sandwich boards inside at the close of business each day…If you are dissatisfied with the law and wish to have it changed I encourage you to go your Town Board.”

And, she added by email last week, “To this day, if I see that a store owner is too lazy to remove the sign board when they close up shop for the day, I visit them with a verbal warning. Most of the store owners are being responsible about keeping these boards off the pedestrian path and bring them in at night.”

In the office, Casciaro noted how she often goes out at night to see who’s left their signs out. “To me, these things say, ‘We’re open,” she said. But then she mentioned one business she had to speak to 22 times to get them to start “getting with the program.”

She’s found that instead of getting bogged down in the paperwork of Orders to Remedy and all involved, “it’s easier for me to go straight to the business…I have most of them on speed dial anyway.”

She brought the subject up, Casciaro says, in her recent request for  a budget expansion to allow for at least one more full-timer in her office. But the town board denied her. As a result, much of her office’s time gets taken up with existing litigation, several involving large situations where swaths of forest have been clearcut illegally, to non-payment of needed fees for building permits and planning processes.

Meanwhile, out on Woodstock’s main streets, sandwich boards continued to come and go, mostly with the coming and going of daytime business hours. As many struggled with line of sight traffic problems, or just walking down town sidewalks.

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