The town’s Sign Advisory Council, which has stirred controversy on the island this summer amid its dispute with NanTaco and discussion of a potential crackdown on faux flower installations, is being disbanded by the Planning & Land Use Services department, effective immediately.
The appointed Sign Advisory Council, along with all four other advisory boards to the elected Historic District Commission, have no legal standing and “should discontinue any meetings or deliberations,” according to a legal opinion by town counsel John Giorgio. That includes the Historic Structures Advisory Board (HSAB), the Siasconset Advisory Committee, the Madaket Advisory Board, the Tuckernuck Island Advisory Council, as well as the now inactive Design Advisory Committee.
According to the memo obtained by the Current, Giorgio researched the legality of the advisory boards at the request of Planning Director Andrew Vorce, who was concerned that their scope had “expanded considerably” and that their recommendations “go beyond being merely advisory in nature which results in an intrusion on the discretion of the elected HDC and causes confusion for applicants.” The Planning and Land Use Services department had also been fielding questions about the Sign Advisory Council’s legal authority in the context of the process for reappointment of its members. According to its own web site, three out of the five SAC members had terms that expired in 2021, but were still serving on the council.
After reviewing the town’s charter and bylaws, along with the HDC’s enabling legislation and relevant state laws, Giorgio wrote to Vorce that the HDC has no legal authority to create any advisory committees, and that an elected body cannot delegate its authority to non-elected standing committees without specific legislative authority.
In an e-mail to Historic District Commission chair Ray Pohl, Vorce said “PLUS will no longer provide support for these committees. They should no longer meet and we will remove references to their participation. Committee members should certainly be thanked for their service and the discontinuation of these committees is not directly related to any specific incident, although questions about them resurfaced after recent discussions at the sign committee. PLUS staff members will assist in the transition and Billy Saad will be the point person for signs.”
Nantucket Historic District Commission member Diane Coombs said she was "absolutely surprised" by the town's decision, and believes it was driven by the SAC's dispute with Nantaco.
"It's the death of Nantucket if it's not handled properly," Coombs told the Current. "I do not see what Andrew Vorce of the Planning Department has to do with the HDC. We're state and federally designated as a commission. We're not under the Select Board or under Andrew Vorce. I think it's retaliatory to the thing that was written by the people who have the taco shop downtown. We're an historic island and there are certain rules that go along with an historic island, and that's the main thing that brings money into this town. We've never gone through this before. The person who owns (NanTaco), I don't know why or where they came from, but his attitude is shocking."
Sign Advisory Council chair Chris Young told the Current Wednesday that he had spent years helping the HDC follow its guidelines and procedures.
"I’m confident that the work of our committee has had a positive impact on the town and that we have been an asset to the HDC," Young said. "We have dedicated years to helping the HDC follow the guidelines and procedures set in place. If town leadership, acting on guidance from Town Counsel, feels that the procedures need to be amended, I urge them to do that with haste. The need for our efforts has not waned."
Like Coombs, former Nantucket Historical Commission chair Hillary Hedges Rayport, who was voted out of her appointed position by the Select Board in June, pinned the decision to disband the advisory committees on Vorce and the owners of NanTaco.
"Andrew Vorce is throwing the SAC under the bus, when they are executing their responsibility to advise the HDC about appropriateness of signs and whether or not existing signs have been permitted," Rayport said. "And he’s throwing the whole HDC under the bus along with them, by blowing up all the advisory committees...How does it serve the community to have ALL the HDC advisory committees discontinued immediately? It does not. If there is some technical, bureaucratic amendment that should take place, that can happen in due course. These committees have existed for 20, 30, 40 years. They do not need to be discontinued and reconstituted NOW. It can be done as housekeeping through the Select Board or at Town Meeting and in the mean time, they can continue their duties. If Andrew Vorce would approve additional professional staff support for these overburdened citizen committees, that would help."
Nantucket Current has reached out to other members of the HDC and the SAC, along with Vorce, and will update this story with their comments if we receive any responses.