If you have followed this website over the past several years, you know that the Editor believes Schenectady has been far too lenient in allowing frequently-changing digital signs along its roadways. [see, e.g., this 2015 posting] The digital/LCD signs are called Electronic Message Boards [EMB] in the City Zoning Code, and Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs [CEVMS] by New York State.
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In addition to the Planning Commission’s nearly-automatic granting of Special Use Permits for EMBs, I’ve recently realized that the City’s Zoning and Code Enforcement Offices have been allowing highly visible violations of the relevant Zoning provisions for such Electronic Message Boards. Specifically, there appear to be ongoing violations of Schenectady Zoning Code, § 264-61(I), which states: “ In no case shall the message change at a rate greater than once every eight seconds.” This posting demonstrates and explores the lack of enforcement. [For another form of digital sign non-compliance, see our posting “Proctors Marquee Billboard“.]
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. . Query: What’s the advantage for the business shown above in installing the digital sign on the right, over its attractive and effective predecessor on the left, in Schenectady upscale retail district? . . Also, with the bright digital sign placed at the sidewalk and very close to a busy roadway (with heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic), and located near a complicated set of intersections and parking alternatives and restrictions, in addition to residences, what does the public gain that warrants added traffic hazards, questionable aesthetics, and setting a regulatory precedent that will certainly be exploited by nearby businesses? [see the Google Map depiction of the relevant stretch of Union Street]
- The Applicant originally asked that the new EMB be allowed to change every 6 seconds, but stated during the Meeting that it would be limited to every 8 seconds, the minimum interval permitted by the NYS DOT and the Schenectady’s Zoning Code. The 8-second interval was explicitly made a restriction on the SUP, and the 6-second request explicitly rejected. [see page 6 of the Minutes]
- Tom Wheeler of AJ Sign, who presented the Application with his client, Gregg Kelly of NEFJ, also reassured the Commissioners that his “client was not proposing that the sign scroll or flash or have any animation.”
- The sign would be very close to residences (and, in fact, was within the 100-foot ban approved by the Commission in a pending proposal to amend the zoning Code). Commissioner Ferro was very reluctant to approve an EMB so close to residences. Nonetheless, rather than rejecting the Application for the same reasons that they have proposed the specific 100-foot ban near residences, the Commissioners added the mild restriction to the SUP that “The sign will remain static between the hours of 9 P.M. and 7 A.M.” The static sign overnight requirement is also a specific requirement in the proposed amendments. [see Minutes, bottom of page 6]
- Note: A static sign, one that has the same image without changing, is nonetheless a very bright LCD screen. Moreover, in some months, people are in their residence and it is dark out, long before 9 P.M. Keying the Static Time to sunset or full dark would probably be more appropriate.
- Enablers. In deciding to approve the Application, certain individual members offered what seem to me to be very weak rationales. For example, Commissioner Bailey, according to the Minutes (see image to the right), “stated that he believes that the applicants are doing their best to incorporate the EMB in the most tasteful, unobtrusive way possible.” Bailey also agreed with Commissioner Beach that approval of the application by the Business Improvement District members is a plus. (Commissioner Ferro noted that BID members could very well want similar signs for their own businesses.) Meanwhile, Commissioner Wilson opined that the particular sign “is the highest quality”, and insisted that “people who live in a mixed use district should expect some commercial activity.”
- Ed. Note: I’d say that people who live in a mixed use district should expect to be protected by their Planning Commission from inappropriate commercial activity, and businesses should respect the needs of the very residents that help make the district good for businesses.
- Also, no one suggested that the sign was already quite large and perhaps the LCD screen should be smaller than the current sign area, given its proximity to intersections, the street and sidewalk, and residences.
- Planning Commission Chair Mary Moore Wallinger, prior to agreeing to approve the application, made several remarks that would seem to support its denial, give the burden on the Applicant to show the lack of negative impact. For instance, according to the Minutes: (1) “Commissioner Wallinger stated that she also shares the same concerns [over impact on residences and the neighborhood], which is why she is supporting changes to the Code to address this issue. She added that neighborhoods have different characters, and she does not feel like the Upper Union Street area would be the right fit for a large number of these signs.” (2) “Commissioner Wallinger stated that in general the function of a sign should be to identify the business rather than offer information advertising special offers or products. She noted that the Upper Union Street district has a lot of pedestrian traffic as well, which most likely will not be the ideal audience for a sign of this type and size. ” (3) “Commissioner Wallinger stated that while she agrees that in this case the sign would be as tasteful as possible, she is concerned about neighboring businesses whose proposed EMB signs might not be appropriate.”
- The Complaint that I filed with the City’s online Citizen Request Tracker on July 9 about the 6-second intervals and use of movement has not received any substantive reply as of July 28, 2019. update (July 31, 2019): Early Monday morning, July 29, Schenectady Zoning Officer Avi Epstein responded to an email sent by me on July 26 asking him to look into this matter, and said: “We’ll inspect to make sure it meets the required specifications.” Also, on July 30, I received an email from the Complaint Office concerning my complaint saying: “Request reassigned from Codes to Development. Reason: This is a Planning/Zoning concern. Thank you.” I will follow-up here if/as I hear more.
Moreover, on July 25, 2019, I discovered that Northeastern Fine Jewelry’s digital sign is not in compliance with the explicit condition in its Special Use permit to “remain static” after 9 PM for the sake of nearby residences. (I was there at 9:40 pm.) The content of the display is unchanged from the daytime display. Here are two images of the bright and changing NEFJ sign taken when it should have been “static”.
update (Aug. 18, 2019): On August 14, the NEFJ digital sign was still changing at 6 second intervals (or less), and was still fully operational after 9 PM. on August 15 (images below).
- update (August 21, 2019): Schenectady Zoning Officer Avi Epstein let me know this morning that (emphasis added): “Northeastern Fine Jewelry has been issued a notice of non-compliance as per the city requirements and special use permit. The City is still conducting inspections on many other properties that have electronic message boards, however the images and videos you submit are not admissible as part of our records, as an officer from the City needs to witness the violation in order to issue a citation.”
- update (August 26, 2019): As of Sunday night, August 25, the NEFJ sign is still not in compliance, with change intervals still at 6 seconds, and the sign is not being held static after 9 PM.
- follow-up (September 18, 2019): Four weeks after Zoning Office Avi Singer informed me that “Northeastern Fine Jewelry has been issued a notice of non-compliance,” their digital sign is still changing at least every 6 seconds, but there is so much movement on the screen that it is difficult to say just how many changes are actually being made. Recall, as stated above, that Tom Wheeler of AJ Sign, who presented the Application with his client, Gregg Kelly of NEFJ, also reassured the Commissioners that his “client was not proposing that the sign scroll or flash or have any animation.”
October 12, 2019: Upper Union Harvest Fest 2019 — An otherwise enjoyable photo-stroll by me (documented here) at this year’s Harvest Fest was soured by the realization that Northeastern Fine Jewelry has apparently decided not be a fine neighbor or citizen. Its digital sign remains non-compliant with the City Zoning Code and NEFJ’s Special Use Permit for the sign. This 44-second clip has at least 10 changes, along with sparkles and animation. I have not been near the location after 9 PM to see whether the sign is put into Static Mode for the night out of respect to nearby residences.
The Blue Ribbon Diner
The Blue Ribbon Diner was granted Special Use Permits for signs at the Diner and next-door Bakery, at the Planning Commission’s Meeting of September 20, 2017. On my way home on the evening of July 25, 2019, I happened to pass by the Blue Ribbon complex at 1835 State Street, and marveled that the images on the EMBs seemed to change so rapidly. I parked and took a quick video to document the operation of the Blue Dinner EMBs.
The 28-second clip was taken at about 10:30 PM, and the lighting is not great. Nonetheless, you can see that some of the images change after only 3 seconds, not the 8-second requirement in our zoning code.
In addition, the changes are blended, and have swipes and dissolves, which add to the distraction,. Such gimmicks are discouraged by best practices guidelines. Notice, also that the Blue Ribbon bakery sign can be seen making its changes in the background. The NYS DOT guidelines on digital signage state that, if signs are visible at the same time to a driver, they must be at least 300 feet apart.
Is the City’s lack of enforcement in the face of highly visible violations malfeasance or “merely” nonfeasance?
follow-up: On the morning of August 14, 2019 (five weeks after my first Complaint to the City), the digital signs at Blue Ribbon Dinner and Blue Ribbon Bakery, had not been adjusted to be in compliance, with dwell time averaging less than 5 seconds. The digital sign at Hair Design by Ralf and the one at Wedekind Auto (photo below), also in Woodlawn along State Street, were also changing significantly more frequently than the 8-second minimal interval required by the Schenectady Zoning Code.
EMBs granted special use permits in Schenectady, 2017-2019
1903 Maxon Road. – Pat Popolizio – Lighthouse – Feb. 15, 2017
2330 Watt St. – Crosstown Commons – May 17, 2017
Erie Blvd at Harbor Way – Mohawk Harbor – Aug. 16, 2017
1753 State St. – Ralf Torkel – Jan. 17, 2018 – [hair salon]
416 State Street – Berkshire Hathaway – May 16, 2018
1607 Union St. – Northeastern Fine Jewelry – Sept. 19, 2018
[Ed. Note: For fuller discussion of potential safety hazards from digital signs along our streets, see our March 11, 2015 posting on “Safety Issues raised by electronic message boards“, which starts with a discussion of Proctors’ marquee signs and includes an appendix with general information and relevant links. ]
FYI, see the Schenectady Gazette Guest Column, “City needs smarter digital sign regulation” (October 7, 2019, C6, by the proprietor of this website).
- An appendix of relevant Zoning provisions, along with [in the near future] Best Practices or Model Rule recommendations, can be found at the foot of this posting.