Once they are called to your attention, the multitude of signs in Durham, especially the sandwich board variety, cannot be ignored. Drive down Main Street in the Durham Local Historic District, and it is a sea of signs. I set out to find out why and to see how locals feel about them.
I met with Jim McLaughlin, a former First Selectman and past Chairman of the Historic District Commission in Durham. I spoke with Duncan Milne, the current Chairman of the HDC, who is also an architect. (In full disclosure, I worked in historic preservation for more than 20 years and have a strong working knowledge of historic districts and the kinds of challenges they present.) Durham is in good hands with the caliber of their commission, if Jim and Duncan represent the overall strength of the members, past and present.
I spoke with a handful of business owners along Main Street to get their take on the appearance and value of the signs they use at the road's edge.
And now it is time for the residents of Durham to weigh in.
SANDWICH BOARDS: P&Z’s DOMAIN
Durham’s Planning and Zoning Commission, not the HDC, regulates the signage on Main Street. The placement of sandwich board signs at the street’s edge is also regulated by the State of Connecticut, which controls the set back on Route 17 (Main Street), which is the first dozen feet or so from the state highway. Durham’s Planning and Zoning regulations, available here, are created to maintain the character of the commercial and residential areas in town, which is the guide for almost all towns.
The same signage rules apply throughout the town, not just in the Durham Historic District – which runs from Talcott Lane south to the Duncan Donuts at 38 Main Street and includes some properties on intersecting cross streets (more below).
WHY SANDWICH BOARDS?
Most businesses have signs attached to their buildings, and the HDC reviews this type of signage for appropriateness. However, the sandwich board does not fall under their jurisdiction. The zoning regulations do not specifically refer to sandwich boards, but they fall into the category of temporary signs. “Temporary” means they are up for a finite amount of time and are required to be brought in at the end of each business day. In the end, it is the PZC's responsibility to regulate the use of temporary signs.
Many of the sandwich board signs or “stick-in-the-ground” signs are truly temporary. They announce an upcoming tag sale, a church fair, an event on the Town Green or a high school fundraiser. These add to the clutter but change on a regular basis.
But more “permanent” sandwich boards have become common.
Zoning restrictions for signs leave few other options for local businesses. The signs adjacent to the street are smaller and less intrusive and are safer for the sight-lines when cars leave and pull into driveways and parking lots.
One savvy business owner explained it clearly. His sandwich board signs at street level work. They draw in business. Traffic on Route 17 is busy, folks are zipping by, and people cannot look left and right to see what the town has to offer, commercially. The signs out front give quick hints as to what is available.
Brenda, of , told me a story about a customer who came in to ask if she sold goat food. The person was driving through town and saw her sandwich board that listed about six animals for which she provided food but it didn’t mention goats (or llamas or turtles… you get the point). It was clear that her sandwich board brought in this new customer.
Most business owners on Main Street are aware that the zoning regulations require businesses to haul the sandwich board in every night, yet most do not. Several business owners admitted to feeling a little guilty they don’t do it, but it had become a tedious and onerous daily task they said.
I did not find any business owners who have a problem with the signage. Most of their complaints were with the exempt businesses, like gas stations, which are allowed to have large, bold signs to announce the brand name and multiple smaller signs to advertise gas prices. These signs, the local business owner’s feel, distract from the historic character of the town, even though they are only on the edges of the historic district.
WHAT IS A LOCAL HISTORIC DISTRICT?
According to Jim McLaughlin, the Durham District is “a wonderful mix of residential and business” properties, and most of the businesses are “anchors,” at either end of the district. Therefore, the businesses do not dominate the historic district.
Duncan Milne, on a personal level, finds the sandwich boards are “visual pollution” that contradict the purpose of the historic district to keep Durham “aesthetically above average.”
A brief history: The Durham Historic District is one of about 125 of its type in the State of Connecticut, and one of 2,300 found throughout the United States. Authorized by The Connecticut General Assembly, the Connecticut locally designated historic districts give a local historic district commission the task of approving any changes to the viewable architectural features of a historic property within the district. The goal of such a designation is to provide the ultimate protection to a neighborhood and its buildings of significant historic and architectural importance. The job of the commission is to insure “that exterior alterations are consistent and appropriate with the existing character of the district or property,” according to the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.
Durham jumped on the local historic district bandwagon during the most prolific period in the federal program. The first local district designation (in 1931) was established in Charleston, South Carolina, more than 30 years before the federal government created the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Durham created its local district in 1973.
The demolition of an eighteenth-century house at the northwest corner of Main Street and Middlefield Road, the old Swathel Inn, was the catalyst for the formation of the town’s historic district. This historic Inn, which probably hosted George Washington on his trips through New England, was torn down to make room for a gas station, today the Valero station.
People often confuse local historic districts with National Register of Historic Places. The latter is a nationwide designation that is primarily an “honorary status with some federal incentives." A local historic district has meat, so to speak. Property owners within the designated district are required to follow guidelines established by the local commission, usually based on the standards established by the Secretary of the Interior. The guidelines concern only elements of the property that are visible to public view, such as roof materials, treatment of porches on the front and sides, window styles and materials, exterior materials (think vinyl), lighting treatments, fences, driveway materials and paint colors.
PZC's in each town play a significant role in allowing the commission to do its job. They channel applications for changes to properties in the district to the HDC for its review. If the PZC doesn't send the referral, changes slip through without commission approval. This is a problem in most towns that have a local district.
FORMING DURHAM’S LOCAL HISTORIC DISTRICT
Durham’s district did not breeze in. The question of starting a district was put to voters in 1970, and it was turned down. It passed on its third try after three years.
Durham’s HDC members are appointed by the Board of Selectman and serve a five-year term (alternates serve three-year terms). The commission is required to have a minimum of three members and two alternates, who live in the town and within the Historic District. There are currently five members, including two members and an alternate who live outside the district. All are volunteers.
Current HDC members are: (In the district) Norm Jason, Duncan Milne, Susan Woodson; (Outside the district) Gordon Wolfgang, Diana McCain; (Alternates) Linda Bertelsen, Ona McLaughlin, and George Williams.
Durham’s historic district itself is a remarkable representation of a broad time period and the development of a small, rural New England village. Main Street is the spine of the district with cross streets, such as Talcott and Maiden Lanes, Wallingford Road and Fowler Avenue. Streets parallel to Main, such as Town House Road, Brick Lane, and Maple Avenue, also contribute significantly to the historic district.
There are 135 structures in the district, with 83% contributing to the district. (Buildings less than 50 years old are considered "non-contributing.") The construction dates of properties in the district range from 1708 to 1935, and it includes 90 residences. The remaining buildings are public or commercial in nature or are outbuildings.
The ambiance of the district is exactly what makes Durham well loved and beautiful. Although people tend to think of Main Street in Durham as a Colonial village, the Greek Revival style (1830 – 1870) is represented by as many buildings as those built before 1775. The buildings along Town House Road facing the Green provide Durham with the quintessential center of town, with the historic public buildings and residences that represent almost every period of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture.
EARLY STRUGGLES FOR HDC
The beginnings of Durham's historic district were rough. Between 1973 and 1980, the battles were frequent and public. Requests for approval on homeowners projects were denied frequently, until property owners became better educated and/or resigned to the commission’s oversight. Merriam Manufacturing wanted to brick up their windows facing Main Street, a property owner wanted to remove a porch, new construction had to pass muster, solar panels were deemed a “no-no” and the popularity of vinyl or aluminum siding became a constant struggle.
Townspeople made several appeals to have the commission be elected, instead of appointed. Either way, the commission had, and still has, a political undertone. For example, party affiliation is indicated for each member of the commission on the town website.
More recently the HDC dealt with more meaty issues. How could they allow a chain like Dunkin’ Donuts to set up shop in Durham without compromising the integrity of the district? Through careful oversight, historic sensitivity, and strict requirements, that’s how. The conversion of a historic property, the sign, the parking lot, the lighting all had to be approved by the HDC in 1996 and in 2004.
The commission faced some challenges when the town wanted to demolish two dilapidated buildings it owned on Main Street. In the end, with the HDC's intervention, the buildings were saved from destruction.
Durham did not experience some of the extremes that come with some historic districts. In 2005, when “Flocking Pink Flamingos” became the fundraising rage, there were no complaints from or to the HDC, despite protests and bans elsewhere.
What is your opinion? The businesses along Main Street are essential for Durham to be a thriving community and the owners of these businesses need to let passersby know about the products. So what is to be done, if anything?
What are your thoughts about the sandwich board signs? Do they bother you, aesthetically?
What do you want to see done?
Would you like the PZC to amend its regulations pertaining to temporary signs for the local historic district?