Preservation Advocates Object To Disbanding Of Sign Advisory Council

JohnCarl McGrady •

IMG 7886

The recent decision to disband the unelected advisory committees to the Historic District Commission (HDC) is under fire from historic preservation advocates who worry the abrupt move threatens to handicap the already overworked HDC and damage the integrity of Nantucket’s historic district. The HDC, plagued by an ever-expanding docket and a shortage of employees, has relied on the disbanded committees to streamline the application process for many projects.

Hillary Hedges Rayport, former chair of the Nantucket Historical Commission, spearheaded a group of concerned citizens who spoke out against the decision at the Nantucket Planning and Economic Development (NP&EDC) meeting on Monday.

“If you do nothing, you are...enabling the dismantling of the historic district,” Rayport said. “I take it as an attack on the HDC.”

Other residents echoed Rayport’s comments during a lengthy public comment session that stretched nearly 20 minutes.

But the committees may have never had a legal right to exist. Planning Director Andrew Vorce and Town Manager Libby Gibson’s decision to disband them was influenced by a legal opinion from Town Counsel John Giorgio, in which he wrote: “I can find no legal authority for the creation of any advisory committees by the HDC. An elected body cannot delegate authority to non-elected standing committees without specific legislative authority...the HDC never possessed the legal authority to create the advisory committees or to delegate any of its authority to such a committee.”

“There is no evidence provided of where [the HDC] has delegated their authority,” Rayport argued. “The HDC does not have enough professional staff to keep up with their workload...we’re facing what is really a crisis.”

However, the NP&EDC says the public does not yet have all the facts. “There’s a lot more information that’s going to be coming forth,” NP&EDC chair Nat Lowell said. “This didn’t happen in a vacuum.”

Lowell also alluded to the possibility that the disbanded committees might return.

“These committees aren’t just disappearing forever,” he said, “that’s not what’s happening.”

It seems possible that, as a result of Giorgio’s memo, Vorce felt it was imperative to act quickly, but the Town may reconstitute the committees in some other form in the future.

In his memo, Giorgio wrote: “If [the] HDC wants to continue having a [Sign Advisory Council, one of the committees dismantled by the Town], my recommendation would be that the HDC vote to request that the Select Board formally vote to reconstitute the SAC pursuant to its Charter authority,” pointing to a potential avenue for at least one of the committees to return.

Later in the memo, Giorgio wrote that “unlike the [Sign Advisory Council], which functions in the context of the Sign Bylaw...the subject matter of the other advisory committees do not have specific recognition in town bylaws and their function is indistinguishable from the HDC’s review as an elected Commission. Retaining all or any of these, therefore, will require amending the enabling legislation.”

The inquiry that resulted in the committees being disbanded was likely spurred in part by provocative decisions from the SAC, which recommends approval or disapproval on sign installations on the island to the Historic District Commission. In recent months, its members have sparked controversy for their opposition to faux flower installations, which they regard as signs and thus under their purview. They have also faced pushback for seeking enforcement - in the form of fines and a potential misdemeanor charge - on a sign erected without formal approval by island taqueria NanTaco.

NanTaco owners Lee and Cindy Milazzo hired an attorney and refused to take the sign down.

They contend that there are many other signs downtown that violate the SAC’s guidelines and that the SAC is discriminating against them. Additionally, they allege that the SAC’s comments about the sign’s “Latin vibe” have been racially and ethnically insensitive.

These accusations spurred the controversy to new heights, with long-time Select Board member Matt Fee taking offense. Fee used to own a bagel shop, and when he first opened it, the HDC objected to his sign.

“I didn’t hire a lawyer and argue it was racist,” Fee said, adding that he simply re-painted the sign per the HDC’s ruling.

Fee also added that Vorce did not consult the Select Board before disbanding the committees and that he plans to raise the issue with his fellow Select Board members.

Loading Ad
Loading Ad
Loading Ad

Current News