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Eight-foot digital sign pits school district against Village of East Aurora

As soon as the 8-foot-wide digital sign appeared on the lawn of the East Aurora Middle School at summer’s end, a rift occurred in the community, pitting the modern sign against the village’s retro style.

The sign stands directly across Main Street from the stone Chapel and the Roycroft National Historic Landmark district.

The school district says the state granted permission for the sign.

Village trustees say, “Not so fast.”

They say the state was not properly alerted about the historic property on the other side of Main Street. What’s more, they say, the digital sign violates village code that forbids electronic, moving, internally lit signs.

In East Aurora, emulating the distinctive Arts-and-Crafts look is a matter of civic pride.

In 1895, when the late Elbert Hubbard started it all by founding his Roycroft business that made furniture and printed books and magazines with artisan style, he aimed for old English flair. Buildings had Tudor wood frames. Doors were carved with whimsical letters and inspiring phrases like, “Blessed is that man who has found his work.”

The legacy motivates modern East Aurora. New and old are carefully blended. A big fire station opened this summer with a stone façade that echoes the Chapel’s. A few weeks ago, construction finished at the warming lodge next to the skating rink with a rustic timber frame, wrought iron balustrades and stone fireplace.

Lettering all over the village takes on a Roycroftian slant – from doctors office signs and municipal litter bins to the heading on the school superintendent’s stationery.

The new sign stands between two brick posts and below classic, Roycroftian old-fashioned lettering, “Middle School and District Offices.”

It’s the blocky digital letters with an electric glow that peeve Mayor Allan Kasprzak.

Installation lacked permit

Just as the offending sign was being installed without a permit at the end of August, police called Kasprzak at home.

One of its early messages – “Remeber to vote,” misspelled on Election Day – fit Kasprzak’s view that the sign was misguided from the start.

“I knew right away this wasn’t allowed,” he said.

The $55,000 school sign, partly paid for with $14,000 from the Rotary Club, was intended as a modern upgrade, said School Board President MaryBeth Covert. The one it replaced was cumbersome. Letters had to be arranged by hand.

Now messages about school board meetings can be changed by computer keystroke.

“It was just another method of being able to engage the community,” Covert said, “… and take advantage of the technology.”

The district ignored the village’s formal, Aug. 27 order to cease and desist. Workers kept putting up the sign.

“Our position is that the school is held to a different standard than a business on Main Street,” Superintendent Brian Russ said.

The state education department gave the green light after the school’s architecture firm filed the paperwork, he said.

“We did follow the correct process,” Russ said. “All of our permits come from the state.”

And so went the dispute. Village trustees voted 4 to 2 last month to hire a lawyer to explore options and prepare a lawsuit, if necessary.

Searching for compromise

In a last ditch effort for a peaceful resolution, the village complaint went to the state education department within the last week or so.

Earlier this fall, both sides had tried to work things out. For two meetings, neither side budged.

More talk seemed pointless to Village Trustee Patrick Shea.

“We need some third party to tell us where we can compromise,” he said.

“Rules are rules. If I make an exception for you, I’d have to make an exception for everybody. That’s the principle being discussed here. If they would agree to come to the table and follow the process, they might get a variance,” Shea said. “They say they’re not subject to it. We say they are.”

Covert said she and other schools representatives could keep trying for middle ground.

“I think that the conversations we had, obviously, didn’t result in a resolution. I don’t think that means it needs to go to litigation,” she said. “I think reasonable minds ought to be able to agree rather than wasting taxpayer money.”

Crossing guard Dave Thomason doesn’t think the sign looks bad, but the placement facing Main is awkward. He’s watched people slow down and get out of their cars for a look.

A corner spot and perpendicular tilt would make drive-by viewing easier. “I can’t read it from here,” he said as he stood at the corner of Main and South Grove Street. “I just think it’s a safety concern.”

Shannon Bandoblue paused to talk and look as she wheeled her son in a stroller.

The new sign is neither great, nor terrible. The fuss and lawsuit threat, she said, seemed a little extreme.

“I hope it doesn’t take away from school funding,” Bandoblue said. “I feel like there’s got to be better things for the village to spend their money on and for the school district to spend their money on.”

The village will keep its options open, said Shea. As it waits for the state to respond to the compliant, the village may file the lawsuit paperwork, just in case.