Scrolling Sign May Scroll No More

BLYTHEWOOD (May 12, 2016) – Having prevailed in 2011 in what the attorney representing Companion Animal Hospital called “the unpleasantness” of securing a variance for a non-compliant electronic changeable copy (ECC) sign after a long, contentious sign permitting history dating back to 2008, the hospital’s owner, Elaine Meincke, returned to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) Monday evening in an attempt to keep the hospital’s non-conforming ECC portion of the sign scrolling beyond the previous variance’s January 2016 deadline.

This time, the BZA ordered that the ECC portion of the sign must either come into compliance with the current sign ordinance or cease operation. Compliance would mean the ECC sign would change only once per hour during hours of operation and would not scroll but remain static.

Companion’s attorney, Alexander Shissias, said the hospital’s ECC sign cannot comply. He said the ECC portion of the sign is an LED, which is subject to burn out when left static over long periods of time, and it cannot display more than one line of text with a few words at a time.

In a letter to Town Administrator Gary Parker, Shissias wrote, “Without scrolling, the sign is limited to a display of ten characters at any one time. After working with the software, I was unable to change the size of the characters, unable to change the font to fit more characters in, and I was unable to split the text into two lines.

“The only thing we are asking relief from is the one-hour limitation,” Shissias told the Board. “We are requesting, instead, to have three messages displayed over a nine minute period. No scrolling. That will allow the owner to display three short messages such as hours of operation and the services. And changing every three minutes will keep the sign from burning out. Without something like this, the sign will grind to a halt.”

BZA Chairwoman Sabra Mazyck reminded Shissias that all the businesses in the town had been asked to have their signs comply with the current sign ordinance by Jan. 16.

“If we allow you to do this, what about all these other businesses who have come into compliance?” Mazyck asked.

Shissias reluctantly reviewed the sign’s tortured history in which Companion and many in the community felt the sign’s permit had originally been held up until a new ordinance was put in place that would not allow ECC signs.

“The sign was purchased in 2008,” Shissias said, “but it took so long to get it permitted that the ordinance (limiting ECC signs) beat it. There was issuance of something that looked like a sign permit and then the sign was turned on and my client was immediately served for non-compliance and taken to magistrate’s court. It wasn’t until April 2009, the sign was allowed to scroll.”

Shissias concluded his request, saying, “We’re just trying to get the life out of this sign before it dies.”

The Board expressed sympathy for Companion’s plight and Board member Joseph Richardson offered a possible solution to give Meincke more time before taking the non-complying sign out of commission.

“I’d like to put on the table that we (give you) a very limited-in-time extension of the right to use this sign,” Richardson said, “perhaps allowing it to change a little bit more often than every hour based on the fact that this is one time in this set of circumstances and that we’re going to limit use significantly, and then a drop-dead date after which there is no more discussion of this sign. And then it has to be gone or operated within the ordinance.”

While Board Attorney Danny Crowe advised that the Board could, indeed, attach conditions to a variance, the variance was not to be.

Every variance granted by the BZA must, by law, meet all of five specific findings and conclusions. While the variance met some, it did not meet all and was denied.

“We tried to find a resolution that would work,” Board member Debra McLean said at the conclusion of the meeting.

The BZA is a quasi-judicial board and its decisions are appealed to Circuit Court. Meincke said she does not plan to appeal the Board’s decision, but is looking at other sign options.