AYER -- Come Dec. 1, no signs will be allowed on the Ayer Rotary except for those for nonprofit groups who first register with the selectmen's office. Political and business signage will be scooped up and brought to the Ayer DPW yard for storage, where owners may reclaim them for a period of time.
While the rotary is state property, Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand told selectmen in October that a town policy would apply to the circle and would beautify a "gateway to the town."
"We've had signs from faraway places and hotels," said Pontbriand. Nonprofits from surrounding towns have also used the rotary. "You can be sure, if we went to their town common and put up signs, the phone would be ringing off the hook."
While the town could ban political signs outright, Pontbriand said legal counsel has advised that such a move would expose the town to challenge on First Amendment grounds.
Selectman Christopher Hillman has championed Ayer's traffic islands. He favored having no signs on the rotary. "I've never been sold on anything while driving 40 mph around the rotary."
"It just gets out of control," said Hillman. "I just think it needs to be kept clean for the DPW. Then the crew doesn't have to make judgment calls" on whether a sign is registered with the selectmen's office for posting.
"It keeps it cleaner and simpler," said Hillman. "And it certainly looks a whole lot better.
Building Commissioner Gabe Vellante suggested "ideally this should be an amendment to the bylaw," but added that selectmen could move swiftly "as an interim measure."
But even bylaws aren't foolproof. "I don't care how you write them -- the first person through your door has already figured a way around them," said Vellante.
Selectman Pauline Conley suggested the Planning Board be asked to develop a bylaw on political signs. "I don't like the signs myself," said Conley.
"If you stop to read when the next clam bake is, you might be getting smacked," said Chairman Jim Fay.
Selectman Frank Maxant said he was comfortable banning political signs from the rotary. But Maxant urged the board to allow signs for Ayer nonprofits.
The selectmen unanimously agreed that, as of Dec. 1, no signs will be permitted on the rotary except for signs from Ayer non-profit groups with prior approval from the town administrator. Signs may be erected no sooner than 14 days before an event.
With selectmen's blessings, massive shrubs were removed from the Ayer traffic rotary by MassDOT last week. Several hardwood trees remain standing.
Claw machines pulled out some vegetation by the roots. In other instances, the shrubs were chain sawed and stumps remain to be removed.
Pontbriand said the rotary dates back to the 1950s and served as a crossroads with the Fort Devens Army base and its Barnum Road. The shrubs represented "at least 30 years of overgrowth. It's a giant tangled mess," said Pontbriand.
Over the winter, Pontbriand said the town would seek input on a new landscape design for the island. "There will be a public process," assured Pontbriand.
Hillman held up his bottled water and said the original plantings were "about the size of this bottle and then they morphed into this tangled mess. Some beautiful plantings are being completely obscured by an Amazon jungle."
"I don't want it to look naked like the Concord rotary does," said Maxant.
Ayer DPW Superintendent Mark Wetzel said the state sought selectmen approval on the vegetation removal plan. "They don't want someone saying 'What happened to my beautiful shrubs?'"
The board unanimously agreed to let Wetzel work out the removal strategy with the state in conjunction with tree warden Mark Dixon.