SAUGUS — Days after a local business unveiled a mural that depicts the iconic history of Route 1, the town demanded it be removed.
“We had a building that was unpainted and ugly,” said Andrew Scott, manager of Cap World. “We wanted to beautify it and pay tribute to the town and the history of Route 1.”
The business has been located on Route 1 in Saugus for 37 years.
Muralist Philip Coleman was hired to create a piece that showcases many of the road’s past and present iconic landmarks.
“The Hilltop is gone, the dinosaur has been moved, all these things on Route 1 are kind of disappearing,” said Scott. “Things have gone out of business. What we discussed was a mural that depicted the history of Route 1.”
But after eight months and thousands of dollars worth of work, building inspector Fred Varone deemed the mural a violation of the town’s sign bylaw. Varone could not be reached for comment.
“If you look at our definition of a sign in the bylaw, it is very broad as to what is considered a sign,” said Town Counsel John Vasapolli. “If (Varone’s) opinion is that it’s a sign and it’s violating the sign bylaw, he has the right to do that.”
The town’s zoning bylaws include nine pages of regulations for advertising signs and billboards. There are general size, placement and light regulations listed in the document.
Signs are defined as any “privately owned permanent or temporary device, structure, placard, painting, drawing, poster, letter, pictorial representation, emblem, pennant, insignia, numeral, trade flag, or representation used as, or that is in the nature of an advertisement, announcement, or direction that is on a public way or on private property within public view of a public way, public park or reservation.”
It goes on to say that if a sign is affixed against a wall, the area of the sign may not exceed 10 percent of the wall area.
“This goes back to many years ago when the town was concerned about the size of signs going up,” said Vasapolli. “They didn’t want it to look like Las Vegas.”
Cap World’s mural is five feet tall by 90 feet long and sits above a row of bay doors. Coleman painted it on 22 pieces of sheet metal at his studio and later affixed it to the building.
The artist has painted about 100 murals across the country, including one at the Peabody Leatherworkers’ Museum, one in Salem, and 10 in Beverly.
The only time he recalls running into a similar issue was when he painted a mural at a cafe in Reno, Nev., in the ’90s, before the city was covered in public art.
“The sign department in Reno thought that even if the mural depicted what was going on inside the business, they considered it a sign,” said Coleman. “In the end, that mural was allowed to stay.”
The issue is a public art problem, not a sign ordinance issue, he said. He cited the Beyond Walls movement in Lynn and the effort to revitalize Salem’s point neighborhood using public art.
“I think if there were more murals around Route 1, it would kind of offset all of the urban blight that you see,” said Coleman. “But, from what I understand, Saugus has some very strict signage laws.”
In March, Kane’s Donuts gave the iconic Route 1 dinosaur a giant replica of a honey-dipped doughnut, nearly the length of the dinosaur’s torso and complete with glowing lights. The doughnut was hung from the dinosaur’s arms.
Because the dinosaur doesn’t share a space with the doughnut shop within the development, it would be considered a free-standing sign and would require a variance.
The sign bylaws specify that “no illumination shall be permitted that casts glare onto any portion of any street that would, in the opinion of the Chief of Police, constitute a driving hazard.”
Scott said he planned to cover up the mural as requested by the town. His only other option is to petition the Board of Appeals for a variance, said Vasapolli.
“It’s unfortunate because people were already out there enjoying it and taking pictures of it,” said Scott.