NORTHBOROUGH – A split vote by the Select Board allocated $250,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for a sign and façade program.
Chair Mitch Cohen and members Kristen Wixted and Julianne Hirsh voted for the program on Sept. 18 while members Laura Ziton and Lisa Maselli voted against.
Northborough’s sign and façade program explained
The program was first presented to the Select Board on Sept. 11 by Planning Director Laurie Connors.
Connors said the program came from suggestions from the town’s downtown revitalization consultants who have been working with the Master Plan Implementation Committee (MPIC).
The draft version of the program called for matching grants of up to $2,000 for sign replacement projects and up to $20,000 in matching grant funds for façade improvement.
Connors presented examples of what various properties in Northborough could look like using the program — painted brick restored to its original color, awnings and new signs, planters, window details like shutters, a decorative cornice at the top of the building and landscaping improvements like street trees.
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The program will be open to businesses and owners of buildings that contain a business or mixed-use throughout town, though applications for properties in the Downtown Business District will be prioritized. Chain stores and restaurants will not be eligible.
A committee made up of Connors, Inspector of Buildings and Zoning Enforcement Officer Bob Frederico and Design Review Committee member and architect Dario DiMare would award the grants.
The committee would begin to receive applications as soon as possible, though it would not begin reviewing applications until Feb. 1. All projects must be completed by Nov. 1, 2026.
Under federal guidelines, all ARPA funds must be spent by Dec. 31, 2026.
When the project returned before the Select Board on Sept. 18, some board members voiced concerns.
Hirsh advocated for the committee awarding the grants to be more than three people. Ziton said she worried that the program wasn’t equitable.
“We’re picking and choosing a limited number of businesses that are going to qualify,” Ziton said.
She was also concerned that the town’s sign bylaw was “outdated.” In 2022, Town Meeting rejected an article that would have, in part, amended the town’s sign bylaw to prohibit internally lit signs.
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“I still don’t feel like we have a real good idea of what we want the downtown to look like,” Ziton said.
She said she worried that if the board approved the program, there weren’t guidelines from the perspective of consistency.
Her concerns were echoed by Maselli.
“I think you put the cart before the horse if you don’t have bylaws and more defined looks for this program,” she said.
Cohen argued that, if Northborough was going to start this program, the town couldn’t wait to start it after the Attorney General approved bylaw changes that are voted on during Town Meeting in April.
“I wish the sign bylaw proposal that had been placed before Town Meeting a couple of years ago had passed, that would be a better situation. The town made that decision,” Cohen said.
He said there were “important criteria” consistent with the proposal that were in the requirements; internally-lit signs, for example, were deemed ineligible for the program.
Cohen and Connors said if the board voted against the program, then there wouldn’t be a sign and façade program using the ARPA funds. Cohen said a program could be funded through taxpayer dollars.
“The value of this is it’s money that fell out of the sky, so to speak, from the federal government, and we’re trying to find good uses for it,” he said. “I think this is a really, really good use for it.”
Others voiced their support. Wixted argued that everyone benefited if the buildings looked nice.
MPIC Chair Rick Leif said the program was presented to the committee.
“I think the committee felt, and I personally feel, that it will help to start to move forward in a small way the bigger ideas that are being generated by the downtown revitalization plan,” Leif said.
Prior to voting in favor, Hirsh asked if the board could get an update on interest in the program, the types of businesses that applied and for what after the February deadline. She also asked that all three committee members be present when decisions are made.