Op-Ed: The Garfield Board of Trustees Case for LED Screen on High Street

As published in the Chestertown Spy February 11, 2013

There has been a lot of conversation around town about the Garfield Center for the Arts’ recent hearings before the Historic District Commission and the upcoming hearings before the Planning Commission and the Town Council. As one neighbor to another, we at the Garfield Center believe it is appropriate to share with the community what we are proposing, and why.

For the past 10 years, our non-profit organization has been working to rehabilitate the historic Prince Theatre on High Street, and to bring a wide range of cultural, educational, and theatrical events to Chestertown. Restoring and updating our historic building is a key objective within our mission. There are critical components of that rehabilitation, however, which do not meet the current zoning ordinances. These hearings are intended to determine whether there are acceptable means to address our proposed alterations.

To put this process in context, Chestertown, like most towns of our size, has a set of zoning regulations which attempt to balance the need to protect the character of our community, the needs of its residents, and its property values with just enough flexibility to allow businesses to flourish and adapt over time. Zoning ordinances for towns the size of Chestertown are purposefully kept simple and clear cut, with few exceptions and variations, in order to minimize the need for bureaucracy. By and large that simplicity works.

However, a down side to simplified regulation is that often, by necessity, it ends up with one-size-fits-all solutions. Those may work acceptably until the codes need to address a circumstance where a building’s historic use and its context do not fit neatly within that simplified zoning. We contend that as a small historic theater, The Garfield Center for the Arts is one of those cases.

We understand that several aspects of the completed and proposed work do not meet the current Downtown Marketplace regulations. The historic marquee is prohibited by the regulations, but the marquee is grandfathered. The sign regulations prohibit the three ‘Garfield’ marquee signs and they are not permitted to be backlit. Neither are they permitted to be 90 degrees to the face of the building, nor mounted at the edge of the marquee.

The proposed exceptions to current regulations fall into two distinct categories. Almost all of the proposed changes are the result of our efforts to restore or replicate the historic features of the “New Lyceum”, as this 1920’s theater was originally named. The one other item is intended as a modern replacement for a functional component critical to the operation of any theater: a sign to announce the current show and the coming attractions.

While our proposed sign employs modern technology, it replaces two previous generations of signs which occupied this very same location on the building. The first of these was a 1920’s era brightly front lit poster box, which displayed the colorful posters of the day. In the third quarter of the 20th century, this was replaced by an internally-lit, fluorescent letter board with plastic letters and a plethora of smaller posters on the walls.

While our proposal may not meet the current zoning regulations, our request is not unusual. Most zoning codes include exceptions, which specifically apply to historic buildings, and particularly to theaters. For example, Savannah, Georgia’s sign ordinance forbids, “Flashing, animation, running light signs, or signs with moving parts,” but purposefully makes an exception “for theater marquees where documented historical precedent exists for such structure.”


The Garfield Center’s current application before the Planning Commission, that will subsequently be presented to the Town Council, is making a request for similar exceptions to adapt Chestertown’s sign regulations to permit the replication, rehabilitation, and/or the installation of historic elements unique to a historic building and its historic use where judged appropriate by Chestertown’s Historic District Commission. That exception would address installation of the otherwise non-conforming components on our marquee, as well as allowing similar historic based details where it can be demonstrated that they were a part of the original building. Being subject to HDC approval, these elements will add to the authenticity and appeal of Chestertown’s Historic Marketplace.

The most controversial element within the Garfield Center’s proposal is our request to install a programmable display within the context of the marquee. In Chestertown’s Historic Marketplace Sign Regulations “Signs may only be lighted indirectly” and “No sign shall have flashing lights or some other illuminating device which has a changing light intensity, brightness or color.” Whether the proposed technology is referred to as a ‘programmable display’, ‘LED sign’, or ‘LED screen’, the provisions within the code are being interpreted to prohibit the technology that we are requesting. This prohibition within the Chestertown sign ordinance clearly was intended to avoid clutter and chaos in order to preserve Chestertown’s historic and traditional small town feel- a goal we applaud.

While the restriction against an illuminating device which has a changing light intensity, brightness or color may make sense as it was conceived, this broad general proscription does not anticipate the variable nature of a technology like LED signage. Zoning laws have often been adjusted in response to changes in culture, technology, and science, and in that vein, we suggest that LED screens are an evolving technology which deserve further consideration.

It is true that improperly used electronic displays can exhibit characteristics which are precisely what the current language in the sign regulations seeks to prevent, but through proper regulation and use, programmable displays do not necessarily violate the intent or objectives which generated these restrictions in regulations. When anyone mentions LED signage, there is a tendency to think of the low resolution highway–oriented signs. But high resolution LED screens have evolved to permit their owners to precisely program their light intensity and visual impact so that the display does not have to exhibit undesirable characteristics.

Properly programmed, a high resolution screen does not have to be a bright flashing object. A unique feature of a modern screen is that its qualitative characteristics result from how it is programmed rather than from the technology itself. Properly selected and programmed these devices can be appropriate at the pedestrian scale of our proposed sign. We contend therefore, that the actual appearance and appropriateness of any screen is dependent on the quality of the device, the restraint of the owner and the skill of the programmer.

We therefore suggest that the goals of the current sign regulations can best be met not by totally prohibiting this new technology, but by tightly regulating how and where it is used. It is not unusual for zoning regulations to limit the use of specific technologies to a specific set of characteristics. In this case appropriate limitations might include size, location, relative and absolute lighting levels, frequency of changes, allowable types of transitions and other special effects, as well as the context in which the screen is being placed.

This was the basis for the action taken by Chestertown’s Historic District Commission, who recently approved our application for a programmable screen on the condition that it is operated within the restrictions set forth in the Garfield’s operating manual. The HDC has given the Garfield Center six months to explore how a properly programmed screen behaves, with everyone watching. After that, the Garfield Center must return to the HDC for another conditional use hearing, at which time the HDC can set any additional restrictions deemed appropriate, including the possibility of continuing conditional use hearings.

As in most towns, Chestertown’s sign and zoning ordinances already contain and qualify similar limitations. For example, Chestertown’s zoning ordinance allows ‘Professional and Business Offices’ to intermingle with residences in RB Zoning, but that zoning contains restrictions on how these offices must behave so as to protect the residential environment of their neighbors. Chestertown’s sign ordinance can similarly restrict the behavior of LED screens to protect the neighbors and neighborhood.

In summary, the Garfield Center is asking the Town of Chestertown to consider the current state of this emerging technology, and evaluate how this technology could be used in ways that are consistent with the goals that shaped the current zoning regulations thereby setting the bar high enough to prevent the haphazard use of this technology.

Our hopes are that the Planning Commission and Town Council will find a way to parallel the HDC’s approval. In other words, we hope they will set standards for the use of our programmable display, and grant a 6 month conditional approval, which would allow the opportunity to judge its success, and after which, adjust the regulations if necessary.

Garfield Center of the Arts
Board of Trustees