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EA sign flap takes a step closer to court

A flap about a school’s digital sign in the heart of historic East Aurora is headed to court. It could cost the village as much as $60,000 in legal fees.

The 4-to-1 Village Board vote Monday was the latest development in the fracas that erupted after the sign was installed on the lawn of East Aurora Middle School at the end of August in spite of the village’s protests. As a court-filing deadline neared at the end of this month, the board felt compelled to act.

Talks this fall led the school district to offer to adjust how the electric messages look. Unsatisfied, the village wanted to submit the entire sign to a design review process.

“What would be the purpose of that when they’ve already told us they don’t want the sign?” said Brian Russ, school superintendent.

“It doesn’t even impact anything,” he said of the sign. “It’s so benign, I don’t know what else to say.”

Village leaders say there’s a larger point: The electric sign overlooked village rules about sign design review in historic places. They want a judge to decide if schools can follow a state protocol that didn’t factor in local history and the community rules about old-style looks.

“We’re hoping the state would say, ‘You need to redo your entire process,’ ” said Village Trustee Patrick Shea.

News of the legal journey was disappointing to the former chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, Mark Warren.

He called the sign “mind-boggling” and “a desecration” in a letter two months ago. Yet, he said, going to court seems unnecessary.

“The school district is not an island unto itself; it’s a part of the community,” said Warren, who is a lawyer.

“I don’t think there should be litigation here either,” he said. “I would expect local institutions should be able to have a reasonable conversation.”

But the sign, he said, is glaringly out of place.

It faces the Roycroft Campus, where Elbert Hubbard founded his business printing and manufacturing Arts-and-Crafts-style furnishings in 1895. Like the White House and the Brooklyn Bridge, the campus is designated a National Historic Landmark.

The area, with buildings in stone and Tudor-style, is “the Village’s most significant and sensitive historic resource of national importance, in which millions of public and private dollars have been and continue to be invested,” wrote Warren in the October protest letter on behalf of the historic commission.

What’s more, he said, there is history on both sides of the street.

The new sign, on the lawn of a circa-1917 school building, is flanked by a pair of old statues: A bronze Elbert Hubbard sits on a rock facing toward a 1909 statue he commissioned of Michelangelo stepping forward. Both once stood on the Roycroft Campus across the street.

“There’s a time and a place for an LED sign. I would respectfully submit that place is not that,” said Warren. “It begs the question as to whether they should have done it and that’s where the dialogue should occur.”

Russ said the conflict seems out of step with the mild-looking sign fixed between two brick pillars. It was part of a $7.8 million capital plan that began in 2014 and covered things like a new phone system, roofing and pool improvements.

“Our kids, in so many ways, excel and we’re focused on this,” said Russ.

Mayor Allan Kasprzak said the Village Board, at the special meeting Monday, voted to file paperwork seeking a declaratory judgment. The law firm engaged estimated the costs at $60,000 for the most lengthy version of the process.

“There are no winners here,” Kasprzak said. “We need an answer … That’s it in a nutshell.”