BETHEL – If at first you don’t succeed, try another municipal board. That message came across loud and clear early Tuesday evening when new business owners Scott and Robin Mills appealed a May 14 Planning Board decision that denied their restaurant sign application.

The Mills purchased Breau’s restaurant and dairy bar, which is located a mile west of Bethel Village on Route 2. Then they sought to rename it, Bethel’s Best Restaurant by changing the name on two long-standing, internally lit signs.

Citing the town’s sign ordinance, the Planning Board denied the application by a 6-1 vote.

However, despite agreeing that planners correctly followed the intent of Bethel’s sign ordinance, the Board of Appeals reversed that May 14 decision Tuesday with a 3-1 vote. The panel approved the appeal and granted the Millses a variance to the sign ordinance.

When pressed by planner Al Cressy prior to the vote, Appeals Board member Lenny Shaw set the basis for the board’s decision.

“I feel that in some cases, the town’s ordinances are too restrictive and one of our functions is to make exceptions when ordinances are too onerous or burdensome,” Shaw said.

At the May 14 meeting, the Millses sought approval to replace two internally lit signs that had been up for 15 years by changing the restaurant name.

However, planners said that any change in lettering or design constituted a new sign, per the sign ordinance. Thus, unlike the old signs, the new signs were not grandfathered from the revised sign ordinance.

The sign ordinance, which was adopted in June 1991 and revised for the fourth time by Dec. 3, 2001, states that any sign that lawfully existed prior to the ordinance’s effective date is considered grandfathered.

However, any change in lettering, size, construction, location or lighting of the sign shall constitute a new sign and the change governed by the terms of the ordinance.

It further states that signs may be lit by external lighting and, as of June 12, 1997, internally lit signs are prohibited in the town of Bethel.

On Tuesday, the Millses, in a letter to the Board of Appeals, said the Planning Board’s denial and adherence to the ordinance would force them to suffer a financial hardship.

“It would be a financial burden to spend more money to replace signs that have been there for 15 years,” Scott Mills said. “That is unreasonable.”

Cressy, however, argued that planners had followed the intent of the ordinance.

“The Planning Board is trying its best to be consistent,” he said. “In the interest of consistency, we feel that it is important to deny this. There was some discussion about granting a potential waiver based on financial hardship. But the board felt that requiring external illumination would not present financial hardship.”

Planner Sarah Tucker agreed.

“The spirit of the ordinance is to limit internally lit signs,” she said. “We’re trying to get rid of signs like McDonald’s, which can come to town with their golden arches.”

Bethel has never had a McDonald’s restaurant.

Shaw, who wrote the initial one-page sign ordinance, however, didn’t share their viewpoints.

“I was on the Planning Board in 1997 when someone decided that internally lit signs were not aesthetically pleasing to the Town of Bethel,” Shaw said.

Anyone wishing to appeal the Board of Appeal’s decision has 30 days to do so at Oxford County Superior Court, he added. However, that person can only be an aggrieved party or someone who was present at the hearing.


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