BETHEL — Gov. Paul LePage has ordered state workers to install four temporary signs to direct motorists to the Black Diamond Steakhouse by Thursday.
The temporary signs will stand until the restaurant owners obtain permanent signs from the town.
According to restaurant owner Rick Savage, the governor ordered the Maine Department of Transportation to install the signs on state roads, pointing the way to the steakhouse on the Sunday River Road. The order came after Savage and his brother, Ron, criticized the town's slow response in issuing permits for permanent signs under the town's recently amended sign standards.
For the past decade, roadside signs on state routes in Bethel have been administered by the town under a memorandum of understanding between MDOT and Bethel. As a result, Bethel is allowed to create an alternative to state standards for roadside directional signage.
According to Ron Savage, after the vote at last month's annual town meeting to amend the standards he called the town office to get a permit for a directional sign, but was told the permits hadn’t yet been written.
However, with the summer season under way, Savage said his business couldn’t wait. The brothers put up two of their own temporary signs on Route 2.
Last week the town filed a civil lawsuit against the Savages, accusing them of multiple violations of the town sign ordinance dating back to March of 2012, including violation of the amended standards.
The Savages have acknowledged they posted temporary signs, but denied violating any municipal sign ordinance.
On Monday, the Bethel Citizen contacted the governor's office about Savage's statement that LePage had approved state signage, and spokesperson Adrienne Bennett said she would check with MDOT.
According to MDOT spokesman Ted Talbot, at the direction of MDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt four state signs, approximately 4 feet by 8 inches, would be placed on state roads in Bethel. They are to be installed near Davis Park; near Mahoosuc Realty on the Parkway; and on Route 2 near the Sunday River Road, he said.
Talbot said Rick Savage has been in touch with MDOT about the signs issue “quite often, and I do mean quite often.”
He said Bernhardt and LePage had discussed the time frame for the installation of the permanent town signs, “and the commissioner came back and directed us to (install the Black Diamond signs).”
Talbot emphasized the signs are temporary, and MDOT “tries not to impede local ordinances.”
But, he said, the department would be open to requests from other Bethel businesses for temporary signs “as long as they have an eye toward permanent signage. We wouldn’t refuse any conversation.”
Bethel Town Manager Jim Doar was asked Tuesday about the state action.
“I just learned this was happening from MDOT today, even though they made the decision on the third,” he said. “We plan on speaking with them Thursday morning and if I have anything to say after that meeting, I will.”
He said mid-September has been established as the goal for installation of new signs. “We set aside part of our process to expedite it,” he said. “The selectmen usually approve bids before they are sent out, but didn’t this time in order to speed up the process.”
Doar said requests for bids from companies to create the signs were due July 10 and selectmen will choose one at Monday’s meeting.
“We’re not going to set aside the requirement to go out to bid,” he added.
Doar also said the town had decided to use one manufacturer in order to have consistent signs. That company will have eight weeks to produce the signs, a time frame two contractors found too short and, as a result, opted not to put in a bid, he said.
As of Wednesday afternoon, no bids had been received, a situation that Doar said he would discuss with selectmen Monday.
When asked about the possibility of the town allowing businesses to put up temporary signs until the permanent ones are completed, Doar said it would go against town ordinance, the state billboard law and the town’s memorandum of understanding with the state.