Boston’s Kenmore Square Citgo sign and Cambridge’s Memorial Drive Shell gas station sign have been embraced by opponents of a sign ordinance setting up a process for much smaller business signs in Cambridge. (Bottom photo: Wally Gobetz)

Changes to the city sign ordinance passed Monday in an acrimonious series of votes by the City Council, culminating in a 6-3 vote to adopt the ordinance with amendments from the Planning Board.

The meeting lasted some three and a half hours, most of which was devoted to the sign ordinance.

The part of the ordinance that has drawn the most attention over the past few months and six hearings by the board, council and the council’s Ordinance Committee — including hundreds of e-mails to public officials in addition to dozens of people speaking during public comment periods — is about corporate branding allowed atop office buildings. The laws wouldn’t allow retailers such as a Burger King franchise to have such a sign, only businesses occupying office space equaling at least 25 percent of a building, and only in business districts. There could be only one sign per side of a building facing a street, up to two per building, and no signs that flash or turn. Signs can be backlit or lit by spotlight, but not lit from inside. There are also size and placement limitations, although allowances to let a sign be raised above a building’s roofline bothered opponents.

The net effect will be to toughen city sign law, backers said, while opponents have said, with some hyperbole, that they feared the city becoming like Las Vegas.

Still, most resistance to the change throughout the long and sometimes confusing process of amendment (the Aug. 31 version of the document included two sets of revisions, distinguished by color) were along environmental lines, with many questioning the effect on the skyline, local wildlife and residents. Others, including councillor Craig Kelley, didn’t feel the current system of approving signs — often through variances or special permits to get around restrictions on the size, placement or kind — was broken enough to warrant the fixes, and that there were other areas of zoning law, such as lot size, more deserving of the effort.

Supporters of the changes cited the subjective nature of sign approval, with councillor Leland Cheung saying the changes meant an end to “treating companies across the street from each other differently.”

A modest sign on the Viacell building at 245 First St. was bigger than city law allowed and approved only because the business claimed a hardship, attorney James Rafferty said in testimony at the Sept. 23 committee hearing and again Monday. The hardship claimed was that employees of the biotech company needed the illuminated sign so they could find their way at night.

“If these are the people who are going to cure diseases for us and they can’t find their way into the buildings, I’m not as optimistic about our future as I used to be,” Rafferty said. “But what it really means is that we’ve got a system in place here where we pretend maybe there’s a hardship, and as long as there isn’t another tenant in the building who wants to sue or mount a campaign against you … you can get yourself a variance. Let’s be honest, these signs aren’t about helping people find the buildings. They’re either appropriate or they’re not, but to suggest we keep the variance process because it works is really doing a disservice.”

The system worked “on a wink and a nod,” according to Rafferty and others.

Weaknesses in arguments

Each side revealed weaknesses in their arguments over the course of the debate. Opponents of the ordinance who feared large, bright signs along the Charles River also supported the biggest, brightest examples of signs around: the Shell gas station sign in Cambridge on Memorial Drive and the Citgo sign in Boston’s Kenmore Square, both of which are along the river. Cheung mentioned the seeming paradox at the committee hearing, saying “Signs are something people will fight when they’re first going up, but then after it’s been there for a bunch of years, people can’t imagine it not being there. I asked about the Citgo sign, and [foes] said, ‘Oh, I like that sign.’ But it’s gaudy and illuminated.”

Indeed, in testimony Monday night, former council candidate James Williamson was one who went from saying, “garish, commercial branding of buildings, whatever it’s called, I think there should be tight constraint on that type of thing — the visual blight in our city,” to noting his support of making the Shell sign a historical landmark. “I’m not against signs altogether,” he said. “Some of them are appropriate.”

The meeting seemed to be at its end, with the sign ordinance skipped over, when councillor Tim Toomey brought in Acting Assistant City Manager Susan Glazer and Deputy City Solicitor Nancy Glowa to answer council questions about the ordinance. (Cheung had done much the same during the committee hearing, adding the city’s zoning director, Lester Barber, into the mix.)

Vice mayor Henrietta Davis took the lead in questioning the ordinance, expressing interest in finding a way to “slow it down and look at it more carefully.” She proceeded to do just that with an incisive if gentle interrogation of Glazer and Glowa that — despite the lengthy process behind the Monday vote — produced about a dozen admissions of uncertainty on a range of issues.

“I guess I had assumed this was something that would be addressed in the special permit process,” Glowa said to Davis’ question about how to determine whether a tenant had the 25 percent building occupancy needed to qualify for a sign. “I believe that every special permit application requires a signoff by the property owner.”  (Glaser, responding to councillor Ken Reeves, referred to determining the percentage as “more art than science.” After the meeting, Glowa was asked whether holding a lease counted as “occupancy,” as Cambridge space sometimes stays empty long after a business owner shuts down operations, but she would reply only that the language of the ordinance “speaks for itself,” although the language of the ordinance doesn’t address the question at all.)

“I would assume that that’s covered by the marketplace,” Glowa said to Davis’ questions about whether the city has a role determining what a landlord could charge a tenant for the rights to put up a sign. Although up to four businesses could justifiably deserve a sign, the rights to the limited number of signs was elsewhere stated to be “first come, first served” and decided by landlords.

“I do not know. I believe that’s something we’d have to defer to the assessors. I do not know whether that’s currently part of the analysis,” she said to Davis’ questions about taxation of sign rights.

And so on.

There was discussion of who has the obligation to take down a sign after a business has shut down, with some proposing that businesses post a bond to pay for removal and others saying it would be left to an enforcement action by the Office of Inspectional Services, meaning the city would have to identify the responsible party and take them to court to enforce removal.

“How long does it take for us to enforce a zoning violation!” Davis replied.

Sharp exchanges

The longer the questioning went on, the sharper became exchanges between councillors, including Cheung saying opponents were “engaging in the politics of no”; Davis saying she was “kind of appalled” and councillor Marjorie Decker excoriating that in two replies as being “appalling and polarizing and disingenuous … and inflammatory”; councillor Sam Seidel asserting suddenly that despite his appreciation for the work done on the ordinance, he would vote no as a protest against the ubiquity of branding “as a broader social issue,” drawing a rebuke from Cheung, who said he was “dismayed” and had followed Seidel — chairman of the Ordinance Committee, which had oversight of the rules — through the process “in good faith”; and Toomey expressing exasperation occasionally throughout the talk and suddenly blooming debate over how to introduce amendments.

Even the typically urbane Mayor David Maher eventually snapped at the bickering councillors to rein in debate, declaring that he refused to vote for any further amendments. Reeves followed suit.

Kelley tried to add language about requiring a simulated nighttime view for proposed signs, but it was defeated 3-3-3, with Cheung, Davis and Kelley voting in favor, Denise Simmons, Toomey and Maher opposed and Decker, Reeves and Seidel voting “present.”

Five amendments proposed by attorney and former councillor Kevin Crane, moved by Kelley, failed 1-1-7, with Kelley voting in favor, Reeves voting “present” and the rest opposed.

An amendment by Davis to turn off illuminated signs at 9 p.m. and require the most environmentally sensitive lighting available failed 3-4-2, with Davis, Kelley and Seidel in favor, Decker and Reeves voting “present” and the rest opposed.

On adopting the sign ordinance recommendations of the Planning Board, the ayes had it.

On a motion to adopt that ordinance, Davis, Kelley and Seidel voted no, outnumbered by the rest of the councillors voting in favor.

After the meeting, Cheung and Decker acknowledged that businesses who felt the sign ordinance was too restrictive for their needs, and that they had a hardship, could still appeal through a variance or special permit — but would have a harder time proving their case.

This post was updated Sept. 28 with several minor changes and grammatical corrections.