America / ARTICLES

The Boston Globe: “Realtors object to fees for signs”

Wherever you are in these suburbs, “for sale” signs in the front lawn are still key to selling a home.

Realtor Mark Tavenner says that even in the Internet age, people still drive around on Sunday afternoons through neighborhoods they like looking for homes that may have come on the market. The signs marking property for sale and identifying the real estate firm with the listing are a crucial part of the industry.

Which is why a recent attempt by Shirley town officials to slap a $25 fee on these posters has local realtors riled up.

Last month, the town’s building inspector wrote to at least three realty companies informing them that they will have to immediately start paying a $25 permitting fee for each home-for-sale sign they put up.

“Please be advised that a permit is needed for all real estate signs in town,” said inspector Donald Farrar in the Feb. 4 letter. “All unpermitted signs will be removed if a permit is not obtained.”

Currently only businesses that put up permanent signs pay a fee. Some real estate agents said they thought Farrar read a zoning bylaw from the 1980s that states that temporary real estate signs are “permitted” and he interpreted the word to mean that they “require a permit.” The bylaw had never been enforced that way, but the town is facing a $1.7 million deficit and department heads are looking for creative ways to raise revenue, local officials say.

Farrar did not return numerous phone calls to his home and office.

In response to his letter, more than a half-dozen real estate agents from Shirley, Ayer, Groton, and Westford showed up at a recent selectmen’s meeting to question the move.

“It doesn’t seem fair,” said realtor Rachel Sizer in an interview. Lambert Real Estate, where she works, has five or six signs displayed in town, she said. “This is not the time to charge real estate agents.”

Tavenner, who works at the RE/MAX Colonial agency in Groton, said that while $25 doesn’t seem like a lot of money, it could add up to thousands. A realtor could easily put up six temporary signs in one day, he said, if signs leading to an open house are included.

“If I put up 10 signs in a month, that’s $250 a month; if there are 10 agents in the company, that’s $2,500,” he said. “If every town implemented it, it could become a major problem.”

The signs themselves are not a huge expense. Tavenner said each costs about $150, but it’s not usually thrown away when the house sells and is reused many times.

So far, realtors say they haven’t heard of any other community in Massachusetts charging fees for temporary signs. They also say that it is not fair to single out real estate businesses for fees. Politicians running for office and people having yard sales or selling lemonade out of their driveways should also pay for their temporary posters, the realtors say.

“Where does it stop?” said Gary Rogers, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. “If a painter puts up a sign, should he have to pay a fee? Should a roofer have to pay a fee? Someone selling their car?”

But some people do not see the home-for-sale signs as very temporary.

“I’ve seen signs up for as long as three, four, five years,” said Shirley resident Bob Eramo. “That might be a contradiction to the definition of a temporary sign.”

Realtors themselves agree that their signs are now staying up much longer in this weak housing market.

Eramo said political posters, particularly those that stay up long after elections are over, annoy him more because they are “more aesthetically unappealing.”

Enrico Cappucci, chairman of the Shirley Board of Selectmen, said Farrar also proposed charging $25 apiece for temporary political signs, but Cappucci persuaded him to drop the idea.

“You can’t do that,” Cappucci said in an interview. “We would lose a lot of talented people who might run for office.”

The Board of Selectmen has agreed to put a hold on fees for temporary signs and set up a committee with several real estate agents to revise the bylaw and put it before voters at Town Meeting in May.

Selectman Andy Deveau said he thought the bylaw should be enforced, but the language should be clarified so that the word “temporary” is clearly defined.

“Quite simply, all of our communities are in need of increasing our revenues. We cannot lay off critical workers in the town,” he said. “You can suggest a real estate sign is temporary, but some of these signs have been up for four, five years. In my book, that doesn’t mean temporary.”

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