Nantucket’s Faux Flower Feud

JohnCarl McGrady •

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Are flowers actually signs? And should Nantucket be regulating them as such?

Those are among the unusual questions that Nantucket’s Sign Advisory Council (SAC) has grappled with over the past month as it weighs in on the large faux floral installations springing up on business storefronts around the island. The ongoing debate will continue on July 5th, when the SAC meets again.

Some members of SAC have argued these floral installations - such as the large one that adorns The Lemon Press restaurant on Main Street - are signs and should be subjected to the same regulatory scrutiny. “These installations do enhance and draw attention to a structure. Obviously, the shop owner or property owner has made a conscious decision to enhance their building, not just for the benefit of the streetscape,” said SAC member Mark Cutone. “By definition, a sign is anything that does exactly that.”

To Cutone and others on the committee, the logic here seems straightforward: the SAC defines a sign as “any...device used to advertise, inform, or attract the attention of the public, which is designed to be seen from outside a building.” Since a flower display draws attention to a business, they believe it should qualify as a sign and should have to go through the same permitting process.

But local florist Hafsa Lewis says it’s not so simple. “Flowers are not signs,” Lewis wrote in a recent email to her clients obtained by the Current. “The ramifications of the [Historic District Commission] and the SAC regulating and potentially making this an application process would be the end of my business. We have a short season and there's no guarantee that any application for any installation would be approved.”

Lewis’ company has put up a series of faux flower installations on the storefronts of island businesses including The Lemon Press, Vineyard Vines, the Rising Tide Preschool, Geronimo’s & Cold Noses, and Abigail Fox Designs. The silk flowers are typically put up at the beginning of the season, and taken down before fall, Lewis said.

“I am tired. I am so tired of fighting for something as simple as flowers, but I believe these types of installs DO belong here, and that many of you believe that too,” Lewis wrote in a Instagram post. “When I started Hafsa and Co. I swore I would use flowers to connect with people, spread joy, and ‘say it with flowers.’ I’m afraid that will get taken away if we start to label them as signs, and I can’t (I won’t) go down without a fight.”

The SAC and the Historic District Commission (HDC) have struggled with these questions across three discussions totalling almost an hour and a half. The members have yet to come to a consensus, in part because of a desire to let the public express opinions and provide input on the topic.

So far, the SAC has received 20 pages of public comment on the topic, with 15 emails arguing in favour of installations and five arguing against them.

One petitioner said she was “appalled that [SAC is] considering regulation on business front floral decor,” and that, “over the past few years it has been refreshing to see the beautiful and attractive designs around town. In fact, prior to that, many storefronts were looking tired, worn, and even a bit depressing.”

Another bemoaned the displays as “cheap looking, dirty, dusty,” saying that they “ruined” Nantucket’s natural beauty, and a third claimed to be able to present a petition signed by “hundreds” of Nantucket residents opposed to faux flowers.

The SAC even received one email from a psychologist who said she had researched flowers, and that her research showed that flowers “have immediate and long-term effects on positive emotional reactions, mood, social behaviors, and even memories.”

Some members have suggested that the problem is that the floral installations in question are often up for extended periods.

“Maybe there’s a timeline or a window put on these installations where they can be up for two weeks or four weeks or something of that nature so that we don’t have installations that could be up potentially even in winter,” Cutone said. He said he finds many of the displays beautiful, and “a little bit of color isn’t a bad thing on the Grey Lady.”

Lewis argues that “flowers bring others joy, happiness and help to tell your businesses' story,” and that the installations shouldn’t have to go through an arduous permitting process, but she isn’t opposed to time limits on the displays.

Others think the displays may be inappropriate altogether.

“I don’t care that they’re silk, I don’t care that they’re biodegradable,” former Nantucket Cottage Hospital nurse Brenda Johnson said at the June 21st SAC meeting, “What I care about is that they don’t look like they belong on Nantucket. They belong on Nantucket during the Daffodil Festival for a few days...but the flowers don’t look like they fit into the ’Sconset Cottages or the feel we’re trying to create here on Nantucket.”

But if SAC is going to try to regulate such installations, prevent them, or ensure that they only stay up for a set amount of time, it will first have to determine that the installations are considered to be signs in the first place.

Some board members say they are signs since the florists use faux flowers that don’t look like they belong on Nantucket — if they were growing native flowers on the walls of businesses, that wouldn’t be a sign.

“These are not real materials, they may be biodegradable and organic, but it is still a faux material,” Cutone said. “There’s a concern with the faux plant material that these will maybe fade in the sun, maybe they will get dirty; they will not naturally represent how a plant should evolve.” He added that the SAC “wouldn’t even begin to approach” anything that used natural materials.

The legal definition of a sign that SAC uses makes no mention of what materials go into its construction or whether it can be a living organism, though such considerations do come into play when determining whether a sign should be approved.

Lewis has pointed out that her displays use biodegradable materials, not plastic as some members have claimed, and that the distinction between fake and real flowers is more semantic than it might appear. Faux flowers can look the same as real ones, and can even be made from natural materials. “It’s incredibly subjective,” Lewis said.

Lewis also noted that arguments about the flowers not being native could lead to a slippery slope, as many local businesses have plants outside of their businesses like succulents that, while alive, are certainly not native to Nantucket.

Additionally, it’s hard to say what counts as a native or historic flower on Nantucket; some of the most ubiquitously Nantucket flowers are invaders. Beach roses and most hydrangeas are native to East Asia, lilacs originated in the Balkans, and even daffodils come from the Mediterranean.

“I wouldn’t even touch that because we have a history of probably two hundred years of introducing plant material that isn’t indigenous but today is accepted as classic Nantucket material,” Cutone agreed.

So, are all flowers signs? What about the window boxes outside of so many downtown stores? Don’t those, too, draw attention to businesses?

Lewis has also repeatedly stressed to the committees that many island festivals involve significant use of faux flowers, and no one has argued that those are signs.

“Where do you draw the line on that is a question I don’t even think I have an answer to,” Cutone admitted. “Someone could paint their building and say ‘look, I painted my building to draw more attention to it’. Is that a sign? I would say no.”

Or maybe flowers are only considered a sign outside of a flower shop. During the HDC meeting, HDC chairman Ray Pohl said that a decorated bicycle outside of a bike shop is definitely a sign, but it’s harder to make the same argument for flowers outside of a bike shop. “It’s a little bit philosophical,’ Pohl said.

In most settings, most people would probably agree that a floral arrangement isn’t a sign. But this isn’t most settings; in the word of sign regulation, “sign” isn’t just a word. It’s a “term of art,” meaning it has a specialized definition different from the one used by most people, and, in theory, precise.

In practice, it might not be as precise as sign regulators would like. During the HDC meeting, HDC member Stephen Welch raised concerns that whatever the SAC decided, it could be legally challenged and potentially even end up in Superior Court if the SAC wasn’t careful to ensure it had a strong backing for its case. The SAC has even raised the possibility of drafting an entirely new paragraph in its regulations that specifically addresses how to handle floral arrangements to avoid a lawsuit.

“I think when you have an issue like this, you eventually reach a solution where no one is happy,” Cutone said.

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