SOUTH KINGSTOWN – In an effort to reach public consensus on the hotly debated issue of LED signs, the town council approved extending the expiration date of the sign ordinance to Aug. 27 to allow for the Planning Board to conduct a series of community meetings to reach a decision that fits within the town’s comprehensive plan.
The decision Monday night is the third time in two years the planning board’s deadline to provide a recommendation on whether LED signs should be permitted in the commercial highway district on Old Tower Hill Road was extended.
With the additional six months to provide a recommendation, Director of Planning Vincent Murray said the planning board will have the town engage in a broad based community and stakeholder review process or a community ‘charrette’ similar to that recently used under the Healthy Places by Design grant program. The process will not only review the contested LED signs, but will take into account the entire sign ordinance to address new technological innovation and trends in the industry since it was last reviewed in the mid 1970s.
The town council’s decision comes after a workshop was held Wednesday, Feb. 15, where Robert Messier of LED manufacturer Daktronics and local resident and electrical engineer Joseph Hultquist, P.E. provided background information on the technology and issues concerning its application and regulation.
Although LED signs were first legal in town, after CVS Pharmacy on Main Street and Wakefield Prescription on Kingstown Road turned the lights on their LED signs, town residents became put off by their contrast with the traditional Wakefield aesthetics and the town placed a moratorium on the signs in September 2010. Since that time, the issue has pitted residents who want to keep South Kingstown’s rural character against business owners who hope to use the technology to advertise and make it safer for employees who brave heights and inclement weather when they change the messages. The CVS and Wakefield Prescription signs are exempt from discussion or any ordinance review.
Once again, those in opposition to the signs made their voices heard, arguing that LED signs will take the town down a slippery slope.
“The appearance of the signs is totally unsuitable for South Kingstown. I think it’s so out of character,” resident Mary Lindsay said. “If you’re driving past Wakefield Prescription and stopped at a light, that light is so bright. It’s totally distracting. I’m against this for safety purposes. The first time I saw the Wakefield Prescription sign, I drove up on a curb.”
West Kingston resident Steve Corley stated that the signs will not take competition from East Greenwich’s Main Street, but will take competition from one Wakefield business to another.
To determine just how many residents support a ban on the LED signs, resident Edward White began circling an online petition last weekend. On Monday night, the petition already had 246 signatures.
“I feel the quality of life here in South Kingstown is its most valuable asset,” White said. “I think it is the signs themselves that are the issue. It’s a slippery slope that will harm businesses.”
White stated that if the quality of life is eroded, it will affect tourists and families that move to South Kingstown.
“If the local economy tanks, we’re all going to pay,” White said.
Although Vice President Carol Hagan McEntee initially proposed for the planning board to provide minimum standards that could be accepted by the town along with their recommendation, she withdrew her motion after Councilwoman Kathleen Fogarty raised concern that it creates an opening for LED signs in the future and stated she will vote against it.
“I thought it’d be nice to see both sides, a total ban versus minimum standards,” McEntee said. “There’s a distinct difference between the two pharmacy signs, the gas station price sign and the Newport Bank sign with the time and temperature. If the Newport Bank sign is something people can live with, we can consider it. If they can’t then we don’t have to go that route.”
“This has been so overwhelmingly negative to people, I don’t see why we’d put in minimum standards,” Fogarty said.
Councilwoman Mary Eddy also did not see McEntee’s motion as necessary, stating “I have no doubt [the planning board] will put in enough information. I don’t think we need to define what they should tell us.”