CHATHAM — Some activities that have become part of the downtown Chatham summer streetscape may soon be regulated, like balloon sales at town band concerts, street performers, merchants displaying their wares outdoors, and mobile vendors.
Selectmen have asked staff to draft a bylaw revision covering these topics and to try to have it ready for the annual town meeting in May. A public hearing on the draft bylaws will be held Monday, Feb. 12, at the board's 6 p.m. meeting.
“This is the first step in a hopefully longer process,” board Chairman Cory Metters said.
Generating the most debate so far has been the sale of latex helium balloons at Kate Gould Park on summer band concert nights. Proponents say the balloons are part of the iconic family fun of band concert nights and are an important fundraiser for charities like the local Masonic lodge. Critics say, when released, the balloons float away and eventually fall to the ocean, where they choke or entangle wildlife. Selectmen favor putting the matter before town meeting voters.
“I really think we should listen to the citizens and find out what the concerns are,” board member Shareen Davis said. Board member Jeffrey Dykens said that if the town decides to outlaw balloons at the band concert, it should do for the entire town.
“I think we need to be fair,” he said.
Resident Suzanna Nickerson said even latex balloons with cotton string, sometimes touted as biodegradable, can entangle wildlife. She suggested the sale of streamers or bubbles instead of helium balloons. “Balloons are one of a thousand things that make a child get excited,” she said.
Stephanie Ellis, executive director of WildCare, said while she has seen no specific cases of wildlife harmed by balloons, the wildlife clinic treated 1,700 animals last year, nearly half of which had some negative interaction with humans.
“A ban would be incredibly wise,” she said. “I think the fact that you’re even considering it is honorable.”
A second proposal would regulate street performers. Metters said the number of buskers seems to be on the rise. “Some are very talented, and some are less so,” he said. He said he favors an inexpensive permit that is readily available, “so we know who these people are.”
“I love busking,” Davis said. Music and performers add to the festive atmosphere and encourage people to linger downtown, she said. “I really think it’s an enhancement to a downtown,” she said. Davis agreed that a simple permit process would be beneficial.
The third bylaw being drawn up for selectmen to review involves the outdoor sale of goods, which is currently governed only in the downtown area.
“I would want to create a bylaw that has an equal playing field for everyone,” Metters said. In the past, there have been complaints about retail display racks placed too close to sidewalks, impeding the movement of pedestrians.
Guild of Chatham Painters member Barbara Gibson said her group sells framed paintings outside of the First Congregational Church during the summer, and their sale draws Main Street visitors to walk all the way to the rotary, benefiting businesses on the west end of downtown.
“We have a wonderful small-town business community and they need all of the support we can give them,” she said. Davis, who owned an art gallery a few doors down from the church, said the art show helped her business by bringing art patrons to town.
Speaking for herself and not as the president of the Chatham Merchants’ Association, Becky Voelkel said some of the existing rules are being broken when it comes to outdoor retail displays. Her clothing store puts manikins outside every day in the summer, but in a location that does not interfere with pedestrians, she said. There have been some businesses that have clothing racks out for extended periods of time, “muddying up the look on Main Street,” she said.
The final bylaw selectmen are seeking would regulate transient vendors, food trucks, hawkers and peddlers. Metters said he believes that these businesses compete unfairly with brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants.
“Is it fair for someone to come in once a week or twice a week and be able to sell for a certain amount of hours, and then leave?” he asked.
Davis said she believes food trucks can contribute to the downtown area, and they are a good way for restaurateurs to join the industry if they cannot afford a building. “The investment in a mobile food truck can be $100,000, so we’re not just talking about ‘showing up,’” she said.
A bylaw would not likely affect the food trucks present at events like First Night and Oktoberfest, which are covered by special event permits. Selectmen said it might be wise to differentiate between mobile food vendors and other transient vendors. Voelkel warned the board to be ready for a flurry of applications from operators of food trucks, should they be officially permitted by the town. And while a mobile food purveyor might spend $100,000 on a truck, downtown restaurants might pay that much in a year for their permanent locations.
Voelkel said she was aware of a shoe vendor who brought a mobile display to town, directly competing with her own clothing store.
“If you’re looking to sell on Main Street, you should look into getting a store on Main Street,” she said.
Selectmen voted unanimously to have staff draft up bylaws for them to review for possible inclusion in the May annual town meeting warrant. One or more public hearings would need to be scheduled on the bylaws before they are put before town meeting voters.