BERLIN – The Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) granted the Berlin Fire Department (BFD) a variance this week, allowing the installation of a new LED sign on its property. However, the BZA did attach a few stipulations onto the approval.
Representatives of both the BFD and Selby Signs, the company that would be responsible for creating the new sign, addressed the BZA.
Berlin Superintendent of Planning and Zoning Chuck Ward informed the assembly that several criteria would have to be met for the fire company to qualify for a variance. Ward explained that the BFD would have to prove that there were extraordinary circumstances attached to the case, that property rights were not being fulfilled and that there would be no negative impact the property rights of neighbors.
Ward addressed the board on behalf of his department first, focusing on each of the criteria for a variance in order. According to Ward, there were no extraordinary circumstances in the case that would permit a variance. He also did not think that the original decision made by his department not to allow the installation of a new sign violated the BFD’s property rights in any way.
“The applicant already enjoys full property rights,” said Ward, pointing out that there was already a sign on the property that had served the BFD for years.
While the fire department does have the right to upgrade its sign, Ward explained that the proposed upgrade was in direct violation of town standards, as the proposed LED sign constituted “direct lighting,” something not allowed for signs in Berlin.
Finally, Ward informed the BZA that he believed the sign might negatively impact surrounding properties. He mentioned that Main Street was considered a corridor into Berlin and held certain aesthetic standards because of the historic value of the street and the town.
“All development has to be subject to these standards,” said Ward.
Additionally, Ward directed the council to a letter written by Eunice Sorin, a resident of the town who lives across the street from the fire department. Sorin expressed concern that the sign would diminish the historic quality of Berlin.
“This modern proposed flashing LED sign would be a detriment to the town and those that live and work here,” Sorin wrote. “Once a special exemption is granted, it sets precedents for others to follow.”
Selby argued that the town did allow direct lighting in some cases and wondered why the BFD was being singled out. Ward explained that the town did not allow direct lighting in signs or for advertising and those items like direct-lit holiday decorations didn’t violate town standards.
After some debate over exactly how the property was zoned and a few hypothetical questions on how to define direct versus indirect lighting, BZA Chairman Woody Bunting informed Selby and Covington that they needed to stay on topic.
“There are three issues that you need to address with the board that you haven’t touched on yet,” he said.
At this point, BFD President David Fitzgerald approached the council to assist Selby and Covington. He made a counter presentation to each of Ward’s concerns. Fitzgerald first asserted that there were special conditions involved with the case.
“We feel we have exceptional circumstances … there are no other fire companies that operate in that zone,” said Fitzgerald.
He also believed that the current sign did not fulfill the BFD’s property rights, at least compared to the new one, as the proposed sign would allow remote access, instant message change and automatic functions.
Finally, in response to the worries that the sign might negatively impact his neighbors, Fitzgerald stated that the sign could be kept to the same brightness level as the one currently in place. It could also be completely turned off late at night so as not to be a distraction.
After the case was heard, the BZA voted to grant the variation allowing the sign on a few conditions: it would be dimmed at sundown and switched off at midnight baring an emergency. Additionally, there would be a 15-second minimum delay between message changes to avoid “flashing.” The last stipulation was that the new sign would not exceed the brightness of the old one.
Both the board and the BFD agreed on the conditions and the variance was passed.