The owner of a Morrisville sporting goods store has won an appeal to the town’s development review board, and so can keep flying a banner that the town’s zoning administrator says is illegal.
That’s because the administrator’s formal complaint contained a typographical error.
But Caleb Magoon, owner of Power Play Sports, was arguing about more than just bylaws and flag placements at last week’s zoning hearing. He claims zoning administrator Todd Thomas is unfairly targeting him, when there are countless violations of the town’s sign laws all throughout Morrisville.
“This is the latest attempt in a long string of attempts by Todd Thomas to try and harm myself and my business. I think he’s had a public vendetta against me for quite some time,” Magoon said, calling it a “thinly veiled attempt to try and use his position of authority in the town to go after me and my business.”
Thomas said he enforces zoning violations only when a member of the public complains first, and said “it’s actually pretty hurtful” to be accused of targeting Magoon.
At issue is a tall flag advertising Jones Snowboards that Power Play has had out since mid-October.
On Oct. 24, Thomas emailed Magoon, asking him to remove the flag — Thomas has called it, alternately, a flag, a banner and a sign in his correspondence.
Magoon refused, forcing Thomas’s hand. Thomas issued a formal letter of complaint Oct. 29, stating, in part, “That flag sign violates Section 473c of the Bylaws because the flag is designed to move with the wind to attract eyeballs. Signs that are animated or move are specifically prohibited by this section of the Town’s sign bylaw because of their propensity to create a distraction to drivers.”
However, Thomas cited the wrong bylaw in his complaint. Magoon told the review board last week that misstating the ordinance “constitutes a violation of my rights to due process.”
The board agreed with Magoon, albeit reluctantly. An official decision hasn’t been drafted yet, but board chair Gary Nolan explained the board’s position in a handwritten letter to Magoon after the meeting.
“The board was unanimous in its decision to uphold the zoning administrator’s decision to issue a zoning violation,” Nolan wrote on behalf of the board. “However, due to a typographical error — within the notice of violation — noting the wrong section of the bylaws in the signage section, we feel we have to find in favor of the appellant.”
Thomas did not answer whether he could simply reissue the complaint, minus the typo.
Thus, the year ends similarly to how it began in Morrisville, with Thomas accused of using his authority to punish Magoon, whose shop is right next door to the town offices.
About a year ago, Thomas, in his role as treasurer of the town’s nonprofit business booster organization, returned Magoon’s membership check, and sent him a handwritten note that said Magoon had “actively and knowingly injured our downtown.”
Thomas said Magoon was to blame for Morristown losing its downtown designation with the state, causing the town to miss out on significant tax breaks and other state assistance.
However, that’s not true. The town lost the designation when it pulled out of the Lamoille County Planning Commission, after years of feuding. Membership in a regional planning commission is a requirement for downtown designation. The Magoon connection: He is the commission chairman.
Thomas was also one of a few town officials criticized by the town select board for acting unprofessionally on Twitter, and town administrator Dan Lindley suspects he had a role in managing a short-lived Twitter account that called homeless people “undesirable” on the same night the board was adopting a social media policy.
Magoon took care this week to note that the regional planning commission is not involved in this zoning battle.
“The views I expressed about the Morristown zoning are mine and mine alone as a downtown business owner and don't represent the views or positions of LCPC,” he wrote in an email Tuesday.
When asked this week if the decision to put up and keep up the Jones Snowboards was based on selling gear or making a statement to the town, Magoon said it was a little of both.
At first, he said, it was purely to sell snowboards. He said the Jones family “has deep ties to Stowe,” and lobbied Power Play to carry the gear.
But when Magoon was told he was in violation, that’s when it turned into something else.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that Todd Thomas has tried to bully me,” Magoon said this week. “So, yes, I used it as an opportunity, because I’m sick of this and I don’t think business owners should be bullied by municipal employees.”
Robert Coates, general manager at Power Play, said he once watched Thomas walk up to a Power Play customer and suggest the customer go shopping at Chuck’s Bikes instead.
“I don’t remember that,” Thomas said.
DRB board chair Nolan said he’s grown weary of reading about the feud between Thomas and Magoon, and hoped some peace could be found.
“I’d like to see some harmonious relationships here between the town and a business person,” he said. “We all just sit here and get our check at the end of the week.”
Thomas said he has always seen feather banner signs as illegal, and has asked numerous businesses to take them down. Indeed, the same week he asked Magoon to remove his Jones flag, he sent an email to another business, asking it to remove its banner flag, using the exact same language — including the same typo citing the wrong bylaw.
But Magoon listed numerous other businesses that appear to be in violation of Morrisville’s sign laws, not just flags and banners, but façade signs, freestanding signs, window signs, and more.
Magoon was accompanied at last week’s hearing by his wife, Kerrie Johnson, and their toddler. Johnson is a lawyer, and was there to help Magoon with his arguments. The young boy did what toddlers do, which is babble, cry, walk around and repeat the few words he knew.
At one point, Thomas changed gears and said the Jones flag was illegal because it’s a temporary sign, and those are illegal. Johnson said, however, that wasn’t the bylaw cited in the complaint.
“We can’t come here and have the rationale change because our argument was too good,” Johnson said. “We can’t have a moving target here.”
She said that, if the Jones flag is illegal because it’s “animated,” then “that would make a lot of flags in town unlawful,” from American flags to ones that say “OPEN,” to seasonal flags meant to brighten up a building.
“I would never go after someone hanging an American flag on their building, or an ‘open’ flag,” Thomas said.
Tom Snipp, a member of the town’s planning council, which has input into zoning bylaws, suggested the sign laws ought to be looked at, since it’s clearly confusing whether a flag is legal, or even what is or is not a flag.
“How can we impose something if we aren’t clear?” he asked.
His wife, Christy Snipp, said that, while she understands the town can’t respond to every violation, if Magoon drives through town and sees innumerable flags, it sets a precedent if he gets threatened with a fine from the town for having one.
“You make the assumption that if everyone is doing it, it’s OK,” Snipp said.
Thomas said he filed an enforcement order against Power Play only after receiving a complaint about the Jones flag.
“Regarding sign violations, I only respond to complaints about signage. I do not walk or drive around looking for sign violations,” Thomas wrote in a Nov. 7 email to the newspaper. “I would add that I probably walked by this Power Play feather banner sign 20 times and did not take issue with it until complaints about it were received.”
Responding to complaints
Thomas said at last week’s hearing that the select board has told him he should attempt to enforce sign bylaws only if someone complains first. Neither select board chairman Bob Beeman nor town administrator Dan Lindley responded to an email asking if that was true.
In Power Play’s case, a complaint came from Yvette Mason, a former select board member. Mason complained Oct. 24 about the Jones flag and about a strobing light on the Bijou movie theater. There is no indication that Thomas corresponded with the Bijou owner.
“We should all know better,” Mason wrote. “This isn't suburbia! It's small New England Village living.”
Magoon said this week that it’s problematic for the town to enforce its bylaws only if someone complains first, because it leaves the process open to abuse.
“We set up this world where nobody follows the rules and nobody is expected to follow the rules,” he said. “Suddenly, the zoning officer becomes an instrument for people’s grudges.”