Scotch Plains Councilman Dominick Bratti and Planning Board member Maria Sartor drew each other into a heated argument Monday night, at times pointing across the table at one another during the biweekly meeting of the Scotch Plains Planning Board.
The two disagreed over a proposed ordinance that would regulate LED signboards – electronic signs that can display text and animated messages. The signs have become increasingly popular, as advances in light-emitting-diode technology have made the displays far cheaper and more durable.
To date, Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School remains the only township property with an approved LED signboard. But members of the Planning Board said they expect far more applications for the displays.
"We can't just run away and act like the technology doesn't exist," said one of the board members.
The township currently lacks any standard regulations for the electronic signs. But the new ordinance, approved by the board at the end of Monday night's meeting, seeks to fill that void.
If approved by the Scotch Plains Township Council (the next step after having been approved by the board), the ordinance would prohibit the use of animations, sounds, or flashing messages; allow only one color per message; limit the number of messages to three per minute; limit the size of the signs and the text they display; and restrict the hours of operation to between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
The boards would also be reserved for non-commercial use. Not only would stores be prohibited from using the signs (thereby restricting the signs' use to places such as schools, government agencies, and churches and synagogues), but non-commercial organizations would also be prohibited from displaying advertisements on the signs.
Few of the board's members took issue with the proposed restrictions. There was general agreement that the LED signboards distract drivers more than traditional signs, and that at night, the bright displays can cause a nuisance to residents who live nearby. But Councilwoman Mary DePaola soon raised reservations about LED signs as a whole.
"I'm not sure how much I'm in favor of the town using these types of signs," she said. "I'm shocked that the [high school's] sign was approved in the first place."
Councilman Bratti agreed. "If this is the future, we should run away from it," he said. "It's just not aesthetically pleasing. It's not safe. It's going to be unsightly and a hassle to neighbors."
Both DePaola and Bratti argued that by approving standard regulations for all LED signs, the Planning Board could incite the quick proliferation of LED signs. The Board, in effect, would leave itself little recourse to prevent the construction of any sign that fell within the ordinance's regulations.
Board member Alice Agran, apparently swayed by the arguments, offered an alternative: "I'd like to judge on a case-by-case basis," she said.
But board member Joseph Doyle disagreed. "Without an ordinance, they can just appeal to the Zoning Board [of Adjustment]," he said. The Zoning Board of Adjustment would likely approve any appeal, he said, simply because Scotch Plains lacks any standards for LED signs. "[The ordinance] will at least give us some control."
Bratti, however, continued to press his case. "They're ugly. They're atrociously ugly." But he suggested, semi-sarcastically, that if the Board wanted to approve the ordinance to send to the Township Council, then it should do so.
"I take issue with that," said Sartor, raising her voice and pointing at Bratti. "You said the LED signs are ugly."
"I said they're atrociously ugly," Bratti said.
For a couple seconds, the two talked over one another, but soon stopped when chairwoman Paulette Coronato banged her gavel and called for order.
After 10 p.m., the Board voted on and approved the proposed ordinance, with one "nay" vote from Agran.
More details on the Planning Board meeting later this week.
Correction: The first quote in this article was originally misattributed to zoning board officer Robert LaCosta. That statement was made by another board member.