Aiming to inflate safety, towns deal a blow to 'tube men'
You watch the man standing outside, mesmerized by his dance moves and their unpredictability. His body rolls indicate he is carefree, but he appears to be flailing his arms for help, and you begin to wonder about his stability, especially given his inability to move from one spot.
He is sometimes red in the face, sometimes blue. After hours of dancing, he starts to look deflated.
It's the Inflatable Tube Man.
Or if you watch "Family Guy," it's the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tube Man. Or if you get your terminology from Wikipedia, it's "tube man," "skydancer" or "air dancer." Or if you're trying to describe one in person, a name might be replaced with wild gesticulation, coupled with mention of car dealerships or car washes.
Perhaps you haven't seen one in a while, an indication that local zoning officials are doing their job and adhering to their respective zoning codes – even if it's a relatively low-priority aspect of their jobs.
Most cities and towns in southeastern Connecticut prohibit inflatable tube men.
"They're not allowed in Groton, and in part because they're a distraction," said Deb Jones, assistant planning director for the Town of Groton. "I think they're a traffic distraction, and it adds to the sign clutter."
These are the reasons zoning officials tend to give for the restriction.
Jones said the town's zoning regulations are currently written such that if a sign is not expressly allowed, it is prohibited. But she said officials are updating zoning regulations and looking to explicitly say what's not allowed.
Other towns are already more overt in their zoning regulations.
North Stonington bans "'life-like' plastic or inflatable decorations (or similar moving, fluttering devices)," while Norwich does not permit "a sign (inflatable) that is either expanded to its full dimensions or supported by gases contained within the sign, or sign parts, at a pressure greater than atmospheric pressure."
When Richard Shuck, zoning enforcement officer for the City of Norwich, sees inflatable tube men, he tries to stop and tell the business owner they're not allowed.
"It's not something that they're aware of that's prohibited," he said. "I mean, it's an advertising device, and they're in business to advertise and bring people into their showrooms or stores or whatever it is."
Shuck said he hasn't fined anyone, and for the most part, people take them down. But sometimes when management or personnel changes, they'll pop back up.
When Mathew Tousley — who started as manager of the Valvoline in Groton about a year ago — got a letter about the 12-foot inflatable tube man outside his business, he initially thought it was a joke. He thought, "Why not?"
"Kids liked looking at it," he said of the device, which was just up on weekends. "People stopped. We had people take pictures with it."
Tousley doesn't agree with the rationale of limiting distraction, arguing that inflatable tube men are no more distracting than signs with a lot of words on them. He said business has gone down in the two months since the inflatable came down, a time during which nothing else changed.
New London is a bit more forgiving, with sign regulations that allow the zoning enforcement officer to approve a zoning permit for "one rooftop or other inflatable balloon sign per site for a maximum of one (1) week during any calendar year. The vertical dimensions of the inflatable cannot exceed twenty five (25) feet."
In neighboring Waterford, zoning official Tom Lane said inflatable tube men were prohibited when the regulations were updated in 2015, but that Sunset Ribs — at Mago Point — was grandfathered.
On Monday, a peach-colored tube man with "restaurant" written in white down the side danced atop the roof, visible from the Niantic River Bridge.
Across the bridge in East Lyme, inflatable signs are prohibited, though zoning official Bill Mulholland said he can't recall seeing one.
The zoning regulations in Lyme don't address inflatable tube men, and zoning enforcement officer Bernie Gigliotti noted "it's never been an issue" for a town with so few commercial uses.
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