(WSB file photo of Madison’s east-facing gym exterior, where the sign would go)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
2007, when Madison Middle School PTA leaders were first getting serious about raising money for a light-up signboard at school, was almost a full generation of communication ago.
It wasn’t until midway through that year that the groundbreaking smartphone, the iPhone, debuted.
It was the first full year that Facebook didn’t require members to be college students.
With the seismic shift in communication habits since then, can an electronic signboard still be relevant?
That was just one point argued in a wide-ranging appeal hearing Wednesday, with city Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner listening to sign supporters and opponents, as well as representatives of the City of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools. The city has approved the sign; neighbors facing Madison along 45th SW challenged that approval.
As usual, the Hearing Examiner presided in her department’s small windowless hearing room on the 40th floor of the Municipal Tower downtown. Those making their cases before her faced each other across a table – on one side, Madison neighbor Claudia Ludwig, who said she represented six households and 20 people who had officially signed on to the appeal, and her witnesses; on the other, Tod Crooks, who was president of the Madison PTSA when the permit process for the sign began, accompanied by representatives of the school district and the Department of Neighborhoods. The permit could not be granted without the city allowing a “departure” from – waiver of – zoning (“code”) rules; DoN presided over that process.
The first public notice related to this process came four years ago; here’s the short item we published about it in July 2009, linking to this notice requesting volunteers for a committee to recommend whether city rules should be waived to allow the sign. That committee wasn’t convened until June of last year, almost three years after the public notice went out; the notice of its meeting was headlined as a “First Meeting,” and described a process that “involves public meetings” – but the committee met just once, and word of the waiver’s approval came this past May.
And that’s what is being appealed.
After listing to Tanner explain the process – including the fact that the burden of proof is on the appellant – Ludwig offered an opening statement, explaining she has lived in the neighborhood for 11 years, in a home built about two decades before Madison was. She also explained that she has an inside understanding of schools, having worked as a teacher for 16 years (not currently in SPS).
“Our street has a history of residents living in their homes for generations,” so it “would not be easy for (us) to move. …” The contention is that the sign does not meet the neighborhood’s character, and that it will reduce property values, as well as will not meet the “educational goal” it is meant to meet.
Toward the start, Ludwig apologized, “We are not lawyers” and suggested a lack of familiarity with the process, compared to the city reps across the table.
“It’s a much more level playing field than you think,” Tanner reassured her. “The Department of Neighborhoods is seldom here.”
Sheppard verified that, saying that in his 43 years with the city, in fact, he had only been here once – 41 years ago. He then began that the department “strongly” believes the sign is appropriate, particularly since it will not have rapidly changing images or video.
“The sign is considered an important element of the school’s communication plan,” he added. “… This is not about digital billboards. … This sign has (none of the distracting, controversial highwayside) characteristics. … The sign is not even remotely similar to those. … The only departure sought is that the message … can be changed from the office. … For that, the district and PTA accepted many limitations on the sign.”
Ludwig cited a letter from an organization they had consulted called Scenic America, urging the city to reconsider, saying there are “more impactful and effective ways to communicate with target audiences.” She also had letters from realtors who she said cited property values declining if the sign is installed; the hearing examiner said the letters could be submitted, but warned that property values are not relevant to the criteria on which she would make her decision.
Ludwig said she had first heard about the sign from Tod Crooks, then on the Madison PTSA, in 2008. She said she told him at the time about the hopes for her then-employer school (elsewhere in the region) communicating to a wide range of families via such a sign, but it didn’t work out: “This form of communication that this reader board speaks to is not effective.” She also noted that the Internet had changed communication dramatically since the sign was approved, citing a relatively recently published book as saying, “a communication tool must build positive relationships … Your district must understand the changing technology to decide what to adopt and when.”
She also declared, “We feel that we are representing the community here,” citing comments in a WSB article from this past May.
Barbara Henson, neighborhood resident, testified next, saying she had retired and moved into a home on 45th two years ago, after falling in love with what seemed like “a real neighborhood.” But: “Had the sign been up, we would not have purchased there. … The sign for me changes the character of the neighborhood.” She said it would take away from the character of the “historic landmark” that Madison’s been officially labeled as.
Holly Hughes, who has owned a house across from the school for 8 years, testified next. She talked about having two young children, including a new baby, who are future Seattle Public Schools students. She expressed concern about the lack of communication regarding the sign and brought up the concept of Block Watch meaning “own your neighborhood” to reduce crime, yet “with an unwanted electronic sign, we will pull our blinds more often.” She also voiced concern about distracted drivers.
Distractions caused by electronic signs also were mentioned by the next witness, Paula Rees, a designer and communications professional who has been active in other regional sign challenges. She framed this as part of a wider fight happening across the country. Zoning (codes) governing signs tends to be antiquated, she contended, and said she has been working on this because she has long been “frustrated at seeing a proliferation of signs that did not meet code,” even the current codes that she considers anachronistic because they are “from an auto-oriented age.” And, she says, ethics and practices take a long time to catch up to technology, and she considers the code written for monitoring electronic signs to be “convoluted.” When inquiring about specific signs, she said, she finds that “most signs out there today” are “not in compliance.”
The outdoor-advertising business, she says, is dying, and the codes need to evolve with it, but the industry is trying to sell “bigger, faster, brighter,” so, she says, the industry is going after our state’s “scenic beauty” sign code and wants to “open up our whole environment” to it.
After a midmorning break, video was shown of some electronic signs at schools in the city, including West Seattle High School and (downtown) O’Dea High School. A parent testified that she uses a variety of media to keep up with what’s happening at her children’s schools. The electronic sign at WSHS, she remarks, is often out of date. She says she has often observed generic messaging used on school signs, too.
At 11 am, two hours into the hearing, the city started presenting its side of the case. While the Department of Neighborhoods made the decision in this case, its first witness was Department of Planning and Development planner Tami Garrett, who had been involved in reviewing the departure request. She went through the proposal’s backstory and noted that the Department of Neighborhoods was brought in because landmarks are under their umbrella. The landmarks coordinator at the time, the late Beth Chave, had suggested the proposal wouldn’t need review, she said. Garrett noted she had visited the site “several times” along the way. She said she had determined the distance between the sign and the sidewalk in front of the homes across 45th “would be about 300 feet.”
Asked if she was aware of neighborhood opposition to the sign and PTSA support, Garrett said she was. Any other major issues? “What I think made this sign-departure request rather unique was the location of the sign … often (past departure requests she considered) were to replace existing signs … (often) pole-mounted signs. In this case, it was a wall-mounted sign set back from the property line,” and she said there was even some question if it would be visible enough to those it was intended to reach. Questioned by DON’s Sheppard, she said she felt the sign was appropriate to the character of the surrounding neighborhood. Questioned by the sign opponents, Garrett clarified that while electronic signs are not typically located in single-family neighborhoods, this particular sign and its circumstances seemed to have merit.
Ludwig asked whether the decision allowed the installation of a sign with video capability, as long as it’s not used – a concern given that other similar signs’ usage has reportedly evolved over time. Yes, it does, Garrett said. It also was noted that the gym building, built decades after the rest of the school, is not subject to the Madison landmark protection. She also said, as questioning by Ludwig continued, that one public meeting is fairly standard for a process like this, though there’s the possibility of more.
After lunch, the city presented photos showing whether the sign location would be visible from homes, contending “The sign is not out of character with other schools that have signs.” A question by Ludwig clarified that the view from the sidewalk, where the city’s photos were taken, wouldn’t be the same as the view from windows or porches in the homes across the street, which all were elevated from the sidewalk.
Testifying next was Gretcher DeDecker, a facility planner with Seattle Public Schools. She noted that manually changed signs are “outright permitted” at schools and “may be illuminated until 10 pm.” She says 40 of the 90 Seattle Public Schools campuses have readerboard signs. She said, “We have found that at middle schools it is desired to post multiple messages daily.” The original request was for 7:30 pm-7 am for the sign to be turned off – changed after the public meeting to 7 pm-7 am – between 5 pm and 9 am on weekends. She stressed that it would be a vital way to communicate messages at Madison. She reaffirmed that the district is still in support of the sign.
At that point, Madison’s interim principal Dr. Robert Gary, Jr., is revealed to be in the chambers. Heads swivel.
One more major question for DeDecker, from Hearing Examiner Tanner: The district official confirms that the district would allow all the conditions recommended by the committee to be written into the departure documents.
Dr. Gary, a former Madison teacher who has been with the district 22 years, is called as the next witness. He is asked about the use of an electronic readerboard during his time as assistant principal at Rainier Beach High School. He says it was very helpful there as a communication tool, to reach more families at a school where 70 percent of the student body was on free/reduced lunch.
He also said that he believes the sign location at Madison was chosen with care because of the surrounding neighborhood and would have less impact than signs elsewhere in the district, such as Rainier Beach, which is on an arterial.
Testifying next, Tod Crooks, who as noted earlier was Madison PTSA president when all this began. He said it started with a lot of thought – 4 months of decisionmaking, and strong support from PTSA and administration. An extensive permitting process was foreseen, he said, noting that so far, they have invested $7,000 “without a sign to show for it” because of the departure-seeking process.
By means of backstory, he said the PTSA was somewhat in disarray when he started in 2006; the sign was under serious communication starting in 2007. He mentioned they launched a website. They believed the sign would contribute to community pride and school pride, he said. He acknowledged estimates that only about 75 people come through that parking lot (dropoffs, etc.) “but that’s still a lot of resource we’re missing, over time.”
Kyle Williams from Daktronics, the South Dakota-based company from which the sign is to be procured, was the final witness for the city. He talked about luminance/brightness of the sign and “appropriate light levels for signage.” The sign will have amber lighting, it is noted (many of these signs are red), built into the hardware, and cannot be programmed for video, he said. Graphics capabilities also can be turned off.
Tanner wrapped up the hearing at about 2:30 pm, saying she plans a “site visit,” and will issue her ruling in writing within two weeks. While, as she had said at the start of the hearing, it will be the city’s final decision, it would be challengeable in court.
POSTSCRIPT: Before we left the Hearing Examiner’s chambers, the Madison PTSA president for this past school year, Zelma Zieman, who had sat in on the hearing (but did not testify), asked to reiterate some points that had come up in reader comments following previous coverage of this issue. The funding, she stressed, was raised by the PTSA – about $12,000, said Crooks – and then qualified for a matching Department of Neighborhoods grant. The sign itself, according to Crooks, will cost about $17,000. Zieman also reiterated that the PTSA still considers the potential future sign “an important piece of the communications puzzle,” and said that while the PTSA did not have a formal communications “plan,” it did have goals that were worked on this past year, including web and Facebook updates, an improved newsletter, and working with school staff to keep the official website up to date. She also wanted to address the concerns about traffic safety by the school, saying that a Safety Committee had been launched, and that steps had been taken to discourage speeding in front of the school, including stop signs on 45th at Spokane, and east/west yield signs at Hinds.