EDITORIAL: Schenectady right to get on regulations of electronic billboard signs

If the problem is allowed to get out of hand, it could be detrimental to city's appeal

They say for a city, a parking problem is a good problem to have. 

It’s a sign of a thriving residential and business climate that so many people want to park their cars there.

A parking problem, however, presents a challenge to government officials, who have to come up with a solution that meets the needs of business operators, residents, visitors and the overall community. But it’s something thriving cities must deal with.

Another good problem for a city to have is too many businesses wanting to put up signs advertising their products and services and promoting their charitable endeavors.

Perhaps, then, the problem facing the Schenectady city Planning Commission over what to do with the slow but growing proliferation of electronic billboard signs can be viewed as growing pains in the next step of its economic growth.

That’s a good thing. But as with having too many cars clogging city streets and occupying convenient parking spaces, having too many such signs uglying up your city could have a detrimental effect on business and the quality of life, and actually drive people away.

Right now, there are only about 20-such signs in the city, plus some gas station signs.

But as business owners rave about their effectiveness, and as more see them as a necessity to make their businesses thrive, the problem of electronic billboards and other such signs is going to get worse if city officials don’t step in and develop a more comprehensive set of rules and approval practices than exists right now.

So city officials are wise to try to get their arms around the problem now before they lose control of it and the city street scape starts to look like a video arcade, depriving the city of some of its charm and perhaps having the opposite intended effect of drawing customers.

It’s not the city’s most urgent problem, for sure, certainly not compared to deteriorating buildings and crime and high taxes.

But it’s something city officials must address along with these other issues as part of their long-term economic development strategy.

You’d think the problem would be a fairly easy one to solve. Throw up a few regulations for size and placement, and you’re done.

But there are a lot of factors to consider when regulating signs, as officials in other cities and towns around the state are finding out.

One source of information for Schenectady city officials is to look at how other communities have dealt with the issue. But the rapid growth of electronic billboards is a fairly new problem, and communities are dealing with them with everything from all-out bans to moratoriums on new signs. That’s not much help.

A good guide regarding the issues that city officials might consider and a source for potential solutions is a report issued in 2015 by the state Division of Local Government Services entitled “Municipal Control of Signs.” (https://www.dos.ny.gov/lg/publications/Municipal%20Control%20of%20Signs.pdf)

The 70-page document plainly lays out the history of sign regulation; the factors that municipalities must consider when imposing regulations, including First Amendment issues relating to free speech; court rulings regarding communities’ ability to regulate certain aspects of sign placement and size; commercial vs. non-commercial signs; signs in business districts vs. residential districts; and other factors.

It contains an entire section on developing sign regulations.

The first recommendation the report makes is coming up with a statement of purpose that articulates why the city needs to impose these regulations and what goals it has for its future regarding business and economic development, aesthetics and community standards for appearance and attractiveness, and management of traffic and reduction of accidents.

The new sign regulations should be designed with these purposes in mind.

One suggestion for implementing the regulations is incorporating them into existing zoning laws and making approval part of site plan review. That way it’s easier to regulate where in the city certain signs can be placed and how they fit into a specific site. A citywide sign ordinance not bound by the zoning laws could make it more difficult for the city to deny signs in certain areas where they might not be desirable. 

Also, the report recommends setting up a separate appeals process if the regulations are done outside the zoning process.

The report also includes examples of how communities have created very specific definitions of types of signs relating to their size, placement, illumination, changing of messages and types of messages. 

For some experienced planners, this might be Sign Regulation 101. 

But to a city that’s considering regulating a new type of sign, it’s important to create distinctions and to make sure the rules for each comply with the city’s overall goal for managing signs.

And whenever they come up with a new regulation, city officials will have to have some kind of plan for grandfathering existing signs, for permitting new ones and enforcing the rules. Officials don’t want to burden companies with costly alterations to expensive signs just because they were remiss in creating regulations earlier.

As city officials have recognized, they need to find some middle ground between an all-out ban on the signs and unrestricted usage.

That should involve inviting interested parties in, including business operators, residents of neighborhoods and historic areas, traffic and zoning experts, sign makers and those from other communities who can share their experiences in imposing and enforcing their own new regulations. Listen to motorists who find the signs distracting and to visitors who find them offensive. Listen to businesses to find out what conditions they need to effectively market their goods and services and what sign features they can do without.

Does the city need a moratorium on new signs to give itself time to go through this process, or can it manage the issue on a case-by-case basis until new regulations are in place? 

A moratorium might be something to consider if a lot of new applications start rolling in.

Communities in decline don’t have to worry about how businesses advertise themselves. They’re grateful just to have what they can get.

But for a city on the rise like Schenectady, the need to regulate new electronic billboard signs should be viewed as a positive development and as an opportunity for city leaders to articulate their vision for Schenectady’s future appearance and appeal. 

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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