Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

lunes, septiembre 05, 2011

A Joke In Lenox, Massachusetts

Once again, the law is an ass. Especially in small towns. And if by some strange accident, the law itself is not an ass, those interpreting it surely deserve the feed bag to quell their insistent braying.

Lenox, Massachusetts has a sign ordinance (pdf warning), page 20 et seq of which seems to say that a business in historic Lenox, Massachusetts is allowed to have a sign. One sign. Hoorah for capitalism. Hooray for commercial speech. Hoorah for preserving the historical district of an old Massachusetts town. Retail establishments are allowed to tell the public that they are in fact retail establishments and they are allowed to announce this on the front of their store. Once. Yes, there are all kinds of regulations about sizes and kinds of signs, but the idea is that a business gets to have one sign facing the street. You're allowed to put that sign on your plate glass window. So far so good.

Under this ordinance you're probably not allowed to have a sandwich board on the sidewalk telling customers what the latte of the day is or that you have cranberry scones or a lobster special. Fine. Sandwich boards are signs. But, and this is the biggest but, what if you sell dresses in your store and in addition to the sign that says you're running a dress shop, you hang dresses inside your window so that passersby can see how beautiful they are and maybe even be enticed to come into the store and buy one? This is apparently where the wheels come off. And this is where the crash is. Because the Town Fathers think that the dresses are regulated by the sign ordinance. You have to pay attention here or you'll miss this incredible legerdemain.

The Bershire Eagle today gives us this remarkable gem of statutory construction from Selectboard Chairman John McNitch:

"We've seen 60 to 80 signs [he's talking about sandwich boards one might think] in the center of Lenox, all illegal," McNinch said. "Some were dresses in windows at a clothing store, and the way our bylaws read, that's illegal. We're obviously not acting on that. The books in The Bookstore's windows, that's illegal."

They are? Having books in a bookstore window is an illegal sign? You mean to tell me that if The Bookstore in Lenox is fortunately enough to have a copy of The Dream Antilles in its front window the book that I wrote is now no longer a book, no, it's been turned in to a sign? Presto chango. It's like some kind of rabbit the store pulled out of its hat? Pardon my disbelief and an impending, gushing flow of explectives. How is this even possible? How does this make any sense? How did a piece of merchandise, a book, a dress, a pipe wrench get to be a sign? Pray tell.

I can only attempt to reconstruct this magical transformation. Section 5.2.1 of Lenox's sign ordinance says this:

No signs or advertising devices of any kind or nature shall be erected on any premises or affixed to the outside of any structure or be visible from the outside of any structure in the Town except as specifically permitted, except that in a commercial or industrial district permanent professional

There shall be no temporary special promotion signs, banners, streamers, or placards erected, suspended, posted or affixed in any manner outdoors or on the exterior of any building in a Business District except by special permission of the Selectmen.

Did you follow that? Evidently, a piece of pipe in a plumbing supply shop's window is an "advertising device" and because you can see it from outside the store, every visible pipe is a violation of, wait for it, the sign ordinance. So too, a dress. And a book, ditto. And a bottle of whiskey, ditto, which after you think about this you are going to want in the worst way.

You would think that somebody (does Lenox have a town attorney? a legal adviser? a chamber of commerce? a resident vizier?) would suggest that these items just aren't "advertising devices." No, they are merchandise. "Advertising devices" are something else: they are things like flashing signs that say, "Two Barbers, No Waiting" in neon. Or those hideous signs you can change the letters on to make a movie marquee. Or even gnomes carrying postcards of far away places in the window of a travel agent. Or a barber pole. Or the three balls designating a pawn shop. Or a giant chair indicating that furniture is sold. Why cannot Lenox just reject the idea that displays of merchandise in windows are signs. There. Done. No problem.

But no. That would be far too easy. It would undermine the Byzantine complexity the Town Patriarchs confront in dealing with businesses that pay taxes. Oh, no. Nothing that is simple can be permitted. No. Every impossible misreading and every misleading misinterpretation has to be exploited by the authorities, those that enforce the extremely onerous local laws of Lenox. Reject the stupid interpretations? Reject the readings that bring chaos and dystopia? Never. Instead, we have this:

Responding to concerns voiced by some business owners, especially newcomers, and residents that the downtown area is less than business-friendly, the Select Board has voted to urge the Planning Board to review the zoning bylaws that restrict merchants and eateries to one sign apiece.

Earlier this summer, enforcement was stepped up after the downtown Historic District was cluttered with as many as 80 sandwich boards and additional signs that violated the bylaw.

At Wednesday night's meeting, Select Board Chairman John McNinch said, "We have a problem with our regulations, and we're looking at updating them."

He suggested involving the Historic District Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals and Building Inspector William Thornton in the review.

That's right. You need to summon a commission, a convention of merchants and citizens, and members of at least three town boards to plumb the unfortunate construction the enforcers insisted on imposing on shop owners. You need a massive outpouring of civic involvement to correct the "problem." How silly. But as if that weren't enough, we have this:

Selectman Kenneth Fowler, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, commended building inspector Thornton for stepping up compliance with the existing bylaws by issuing tickets and sending out warning letters.

Lenox, you have got to be kidding. You are making yourselves laughing stocks. I can hear the braying all the way over in Spencertown. And it's ugly.

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