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Towns, villages push back against signs of the times

If he’s heard it once, Michael Yost has heard the lament a hundred times.

“We don’t want our town to look like Las Vegas.”

Digital signs, or electronic moving message boards, are popping up almost everywhere.

“People love them. It’s the way the future is going,” said Yost, the owner of Yost Neon Displays in West Seneca, which sells and installs the signs.

But not everyone loves the screens that erupt into vivid bright colors, flashing messages as motorists drive by, and many worry that the area’s quaint communities could morph to something cheap and tacky.

Smaller communities, like the villages of Williamsville, Hamburg, East Aurora and Orchard Park, ban the electronic signs.

Others regulate the signs.

Amherst, for instance, allows the signs, but the messages can’t change any more than once every 10 minutes.

The Town of Hamburg was thinking of banning them, but has decided on stricter enforcement.

“Digital signs are geared to trying to capture the attention of drivers,” Williamsville Mayor Brian Kulpa said. “We’re trying to gear our signs to pedestrians.”

Eden, which has several of the signs, decided last fall to ban any more, unless there is an overhaul of the master plan for the town.

“They’re not in keeping with the ambiance of the community, which is the rural agricultural community,” said Councilman Ed Krycia, who headed a committee that looked at the issue last year.

He said the committee considered the existing sign code and concluded it did not include signs with flashing, changing messages.

“It’s just we didn’t want to have a town that looked like Las Vegas,” he said.

The Niagara County Town of Wheatfield is grappling with the same sorts of issues. Should the signs be allowed at businesses located in residential districts, or should they only be in commercial areas?

What about churches and schools? Should they be turned off at 9 p.m., as the Planning Board had recommended?

“They’re obviously the sign of the future. Just about everybody is putting one up these days,” Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said.

Graeber Jewelers on Union Road in West Seneca, a family business that has been selling jewelry for more than a century, has had a digital sign for about five years. It advertises sales and special merchandise.

“It has helped a lot,” said sales associate Kelsey Hodge. “It gets a lot of people in the store. They say they saw it on the sign.”

Large digital billboards came to Western New York about six years ago, but the smaller, on-premises electronic signs have been around for more than a decade. As with any electronic device, the technology has gotten better and the cost is coming down, and the number of signs is increasing.

But they’re still expensive. Yost said a digital sign can cost $15,000 or more. He sees it as businesses making an investment in their communities. Companies already spend money on coupons and mailings, but Yost said he tells owners, “Your customers are driving by, they’re actually outside your door.”

The signs are easy to use and can be programmed on a computer or a cellphone, so there is no more sloshing out in the rain or snow to change letters on a stationary sign. The messages also can be scheduled months in advance.

The signs can proliferate quickly, said Max Ashburn, communications director at Scenic America, a national nonprofit group that is anti-billboard and interested in safeguarding the “scenic qualities” of the nation’s roadways.

Once a pizza shop on Main Street gets a digital sign, it’s easier to persuade the shop across the street to get one, he said.

“It quickly becomes an arms race,” he said. “Sometimes it’s too late to save the character of the town.”

He said ideally, towns should come up with regulations to protect the character and ambiance before a lot of the signs are erected.

The Town of Hamburg already regulates digital signs, allowing them in commercial and industrial areas. Animation, flashing, scrolling or spinning messages are not permitted, but many existing signs do have them, said Kurt Allen, supervising code enforcement officer. That may be the main reason why the Code Review Committee recommended a ban on the signs.

“We had so many violations. I guess the board wanted to mitigate it,” Allen said. “We’re having trouble enforcing these operational restrictions.”

But under new regulations the Town Board is expected to adopt Monday night, the town will allow the signs, and require owners to obtain an annual “license fee” costing several hundred or more dollars. If flashing or scrolling words or other banned activity is discovered, the sign permit will be revoked, the sign turned off and purchase of a new permit will be required for the sign to be lit.

West Seneca also restricts digital signs to commercial districts, and they cannot flash or blink rapidly, said code enforcement officer John Gullo.

“We don’t want it to look like the Las Vegas strip but we want to be fair to the businesses that want to try something different,” he said.

While towns and villages regulate the signs, they cannot regulate them on the grounds of a public school, where the state Education Department has jurisdiction.

“We’ve never seen digital signs improve the character of a community,” said Ashburn of Scenic America.

But Yost, who has helped several towns come up with regulations, said the key to successful signs is being conservative with the flashy graphics.

“In the middle somewhere, there’s a common ground,” Yost said.