I think that I shall never see a digital sign lovely as a tree

The purpose of democratic government is to respond to the needs of citizens — all of them.

In a small town, those who are governing are close to the people. This can be good because elected representatives can be well-attuned to citizens’ needs — they are friends and neighbors.

It can also be hard for the very same reason.

We can empathize with the plight of Joseph Salvino, owner of Track 32 Italian Pub in Feura Bush. From Salvino’s point of view, his request was simple: He wanted to put up a sign outside of his restaurant with words that would every so often announce a new message. 

The New Scotland zoning law did not allow flashing signs so Salvino made concessions: his sign would be just two colors, it wouldn’t scroll, and the message would change only four times in a day. The town’s building inspector decided that was not a flashing sign and Salvino was allowed to proceed to the town’s planning board for a special-use permit.

The planning board, however, wanted a more clear definition of what constitutes a flashing sign. Hence, the town board held a public hearing on creating a definition for flashing signs and digital signs.

Salvino was caught in a moment in time where technology had leapfrogged ahead of the town’s zoning code. The town board had to catch up.

Because last week’s public hearing came the month before town elections, it would have been easy for the board to vote in accordance with what some of the most vocal at the public hearing wanted. But the board did the right thing in looking at the needs of the entire town.

Each board member gave a solid reason before voting in favor of the new definitions. William Hennessy said the board had to keep a town-wide perspective. Patricia Snyder said that residents dislike visual distractions and value the rural nature of the community. Adam Greenberg said the law would keep businesses across town on an equal playing field.

And, finally, Laura Ten Eyck, noting that she is part of a family business, Indian Ladder Farms, said she did research that showed there’s no proof a flashing sign brings in more business.

Zoning as we know it started in the United States after a 40-story office building was built at 120 Broadway in New York City for the Equitable Life Insurance Company. The landmark neoclassical building is still standing. In 1915, when it was built, its 1.8 million square feet of floor space made it the largest in the world.

But the building filled entirely its one-acre site; there were no required setbacks. It loomed over the residences that had defined the neighborhood, blocking out the sunlight. Shortly after, the city adopted its first zoning regulations, which served as a model for cities, towns, and counties across the country.

The distraction of electronic signs, of course, is not as dire as a loss of sunlight but the principle is the same. A single building moved a city to adopt a zoning code. In New Scotland, a single sign request moved the town board to more clearly define digital and flashing signs.

In both cases, the public good was a motivating factor. If a community values its rural character, its elected leaders are wise not to chip away at that character.

Since we are a nation governed by laws, we are also a nation with courts that interpret those laws when they are challenged.

A court battle that tested the mettle of local zoning ordinances and ended with a United States Supreme Court decision in 1926 sets a precedent still observed today. A village in Ohio on the outskirts of Cleveland, named Euclid, took on the Ambler Realty Company.

Euclid had wanted to protect itself from the industrialization that was spreading out from Cleveland and had zoned the 68 acres owned by Ambler for residential use. Ambler argued that this devalued its property since industrial use would be more profitable than residential.

The nation’s highest court determined that a community may enact reasonable laws to “keep the pig out of the parlor, even if pigs may not be prohibited from the entire community.”

At some point, the town board may decide commercial areas should be allowed certain things like electronic signs that residential or agricultural areas are not. It would be wise, too, for the town to adopt a list of protected scenic vistas.

For now, the New Scotland Town Board has treated the entirety of the town with the reverence reserved for a parlor. In the long run, that may be good for the local economy. New Scotland draws people precisely because of its rural charm.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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