It’s a sign: Debate over Webutuck’s
new message board continues in NE

In February, Webutuck CSD erected an electronic messaging display. Residents are concerned that it detracts from the town’s rural character and is distracting to drivers.

Maud Doyle

It’s a sign: Debate over Webutuck’s new message board continues in NE

NORTH EAST — Webutuck Central School District erected an internally illuminated sign at the end of its driveway, on Route 22, in February.

The sign, placed immediately beneath Webutuck CSD’s longstanding painted sign, displayed announcements in dimly illuminated, white-on-black text: “Kindergarten registration begins March 21st,” it read.

It is not an LED sign but something called an Electronic Messaging Display or EMD, which feels a bit like a giant Kindle display.

The sign was erected without a permit (the school continues to work with authorities on North East on getting the sign permitted), and further, internally illuminated signs are technically banned in North East.

The sign has caused consternation to some members of the community. Words like “unsightly,” “distracting” and “dangerous” have been bandied about.

“I’m a little leery on sign stuff because [...] you can’t really regulate signs,” said Will Agresta, planning consultant to the Zoning Review Committee (ZRC) at the committee’s March 18 meeting.

While it is possible to regulate size, location, color, font, intensity of illumination, timing of illumination, construction and material, aesthetic and myriad other details, New York makes it very difficult to regulate sign content, due to First Amendment protections.

“How do you stop everyone from getting them?” asked Agresta. This is the question.

Legion Post’s LED sign

A complicating factor in responding to Webutuck’s permitting request is an existing, internally illuminated and un-permitted sign: the LED message board outside the American Legion Post 178 on Route 44, just east of Millerton, which was erected without a permit in 2018.

Years of petitions and re-petitions from the Post to the Town Board followed, until the pandemic effectively ended the conversation, leaving it unresolved.

In one of their early petitions to legalize their sign, for which no permit had been sought before its installation, the Post 178 Legionnaires effectively asked the Town to change the laws to accommodate their sign.

The Post argued that LED signs should be legalized throughout the Boulevard District; this, in turn, led to concern among board members that “the Boulevard would look like the Las Vegas Strip.”

“We do not believe that this sign is in any way a detriment to the character of the town, zoning district or neighborhood in which it resides,” read the Legionnaires’ 2019 petition.

Further, the Post argued that the sign helps identify the Post building as an emergency shelter, warming and cooling station and Red Cross satellite location, as well as allowing the posting of public service announcements, for example about road closures or weather.

During the pandemic-induced state of emergency, the Post was able to get the sign temporarily permitted, which it did; the sign displayed information about such things as testing sites, vaccination availability and protective health measures.

These days, the LED sign is used mostly to display a waving American flag and announce Post events like pancake breakfasts and barbecue dinners. It is illegal again, and the kerfuffle around the sign at Webutuck has brought it back to the Town’s attention.

To be continued

The ZRC discussed permitting for signs at its final regular meeting on Monday, April 1, but declined to take up the question of internally illuminated signs, suggesting that their final recommendations to the Town Board will include no changes to current regulations, leaving the internally illuminated issue unresolved.

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