Panel talks about Crary sign, but no action

Representatives of the Crary Art Gallery didn’t leave Wednesday morning’s meeting of the City of Warren Planning Commission with what they wanted, but they didn’t leave empty-handed, either.

Commission members expressed their support and appreciation for the gallery, but, in the end, did not take a vote on amending the zoning ordinance.

Crary board members Keith Kirsch and Tom Paquette addressed the commission.

At Monday night’s meeting of city council, city officials suggested that the planning commission, and the possibility of a zoning ordinance amendment, was a better starting point than going to the city’s zoning hearing board for a variance. Gallery officers hope not to have to remove the $3,000 sign and to avoid the $500 application fee for a zoning variance.

“Current and past boards have tried to make the Crary Art Gallery more accessible to the community and outside the community,” Kirsch said. “One of the big problems we have is, either people didn’t know it was there or they didn’t know how to find it.”

“We thought we needed a sign that made it easier to find,” he said. “We tried to keep it in context with the building.”

With the gallery’s benefits to the cultural and economic development of downtown Warren, “We think this is the kind of thing that should be an exception,” Kirsch said.

Paquette said discussions about the sign first came up more than a year ago and that the finished product “softens” the “imposing… fortress-type wall.”

He apologized that the board was approaching the commission after-the-fact.

Commission chairman Don Nelson argued passionately that the group could and should act. “My first thought was we needed to fix this,” he said. Instead, “we need to make accommodations for something we haven’t addressed before.”

“The ordinance is a living document, it’s not cut in stone,” Nelson said. “We need to make an accommodation for this. We’re the ones with the power to fix this.”

The gallery and museum do not fit neatly into either the philanthropic organization nor public/semi-public entities that are specifically allowed in a Residential-3 district, Nelson said. Creating a new category would allow the commission to set sign-size requirements that permit the one in place at the Crary.

“I really wish that we were sitting here having this discussion today prior to the sign going up,” commission member Pat Scutella said.

“I like the sign; that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s been done correctly. Clearly the process was not followed,” Bob Dilks said. “We’re dealing with the aftermath of that.”

“I love the sign. I think it’s great,” Bill Tarpenning said. “I don’t want to open ourselves up to issues.”

He gave a hypothetical example of a less respected and desirable entity – the “Tin Can Museum” – putting up a sign the same size as the Crary’s that was not as aesthetically pleasing.

“My fear is that we are going to change something because we like it,” Dilks said. He asked his fellow board members not to make a “knee-jerk” reaction.

“I think we should not make a snap decision,” Greg Fraser said. “Perhaps the sign ordinance is too restrictive, but there is a process built in to provide relief. I think it should go through the process that is established.”

If the planning commission had amended the zoning ordinance, there would have been no fee for the Crary, City Planner David Hildebrand said. Similarly, if city council initiates action for a variance through the zoning hearing board, there is no fee.

After the discussion, commission members did not feel a motion regarding the possibility of amending the zoning ordinance was necessary.

They did unanimously pass a motion to write a letter to the zoning hearing board in favor of a variance for the gallery’s sign and Nelson volunteered to write that letter.

“The commission showed us a lot of support,” Kirsch said. “Hopefully the letter will help the variance process get approved.”

However, the morning’s meeting was a “mixed bag” for the Crary. “We had hoped to avoid the $500 fee,” Kirsch said.