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Jeweler thinks laws about sign are unfair Code limits content of electronic ads

He may be the King of Diamonds. But the city says the Delaware Avenue jeweler isn't the king of his electronic sign.

According to an obscure, decades-old law buried in the city's zoning code, businesses that want to install flashing or scrolling signs can only include advertising for up to 10 minutes an hour.

The remaining 50 minutes must be devoted to "items of general public interest," such as the time, temperature and stock market quotations.

"It's unfair to the business owner to regulate the content," said Paul A. Strada, president of Buffalo-based N.A.S. Quick Sign. "It doesn't make sense that they should have to say 'church sale' or 'baked goods' or 'Go Sabres' and not be able to advertise."

Buffalo business owners eager to lure potential customers with electronic signs view the city's insistence on an affront to the First Amendment. They're not alone. There have been legal fights across the country where such provisions have been ruled unconstitutional.

The complaint popped up this summer after some city zoning officials criticized the King of Diamonds Jewelers at 2303 Delaware Ave. for not complying with sign regulations. An inspector found that an electronic LED sign outside the North Buffalo jeweler's store contained far more advertising than the city law permits.

King of Diamonds wants to operate an electronic message sign with 100 percent advertising but is willing to display a static, nonflashing message that would change about once a minute.

The Zoning Board denied the request at a meeting last month.

Efforts are under way to try and work with city officials on an accommodation, according to Strada, whose company installed the sign.

Meanwhile, officials said the jeweler can continue to operate the sign if it complies with the 10 minutes of advertising maximum per hour.

"There's no reason that you should want to control the content if it's non-offensive," Strada argued. "Technically, it's illegal."

Strada said neither his company nor his client has any plan to sue the city over a regulation that he's convinced is illegal. Instead, he's hoping city officials will remove what he brands an "archaic" law as it revamps its zoning code.

"Items of general public interest" are debatable, he added.

For example, Strada said it could be argued that "we buy gold" is an important message given the current economic volatility. He also suggested that messages promoting local sports teams, including the Buffalo Sabres team that was purchased earlier this year by billionaire businessman Terry Pegula, could be considered public interest messages.

"Mr. Pegula doesn't need the advertising. The business needs the advertising," Strada said.

The United States Sign Council, a coalition of independent sign shops, has helped members fight content restrictions over the years. With few exceptions, courts have struck down such laws, said Richard Crawford, the group's legislative consultant.

"These are code provisions that won't pass constitutional muster," he said. "But they're on the books until somebody challenges them."

Regulating the size, appearance or other physical characteristics of a sign is one thing, critics said. Having laws that regulate the content of a sign is a completely different issue that poses a troubling precedent, they said. Of the 43 municipalities that regulate electronic message signs in Western New York, Buffalo's code is the only one that includes content restrictions, Strada insisted.

Buffalo's LED sign regulations become even more complex when one considers that such signs in parts of the downtown entertainment district are governed by regulations that do not include content restrictions. Flashing signs in the Theater District have no restrictions, city officials said.

LED signs in other city neighborhoods can obtain variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals. For example, the Buffalo Metropolitan Federal Credit Union on South Elmwood Avenue directly behind City Hall received permission last year to install an LED pole sign that uses amber lighting and is required to use half of its display time for "community service ads."

Over the past two years, the Zoning Board has approved applications from several businesses and churches for LED pole signs. Some experts believe that electronic message signs will become even more common in future years.

City officials have already hinted that they're eyeing changes in the code, although they haven't been specific about the revisions they intend to make. David J. Grundy, a supervisor in the Department of Economic Development, Permits and Inspection Services, foreshadowed the changes when he appeared before the Zoning Board at a July meeting.

"I've been asked by my commissioner to start looking at this old code," he said, assuring officials that planning experts and the Common Council would be included in the process.

Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto, whose district includes the neighborhood where King of Diamonds is located, said he was aware that the city imposed some restrictions on LED signs. But like many other city officials, LoCurto said he wasn't aware that only 10 minutes of display time each hour can be used for advertising.

Still, LoCurto doesn't believe such a regulation is unreasonable.

"These flashing signs cause more clutter on our streets," he said. "There should be some public benefit to them."