By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
An illuminated messaging signboard is slated to go up on the front of the Madison Middle School gym, six years after the school PTA started pursuing money and approvals for one.
With the school surrounded by single-family homes, the signboard could not be installed without the city granting a zoning “departure” (exception). A group of neighbors’ fight to keep that from being granted has ended; the city Hearing Examiner ruled against their challenge and the neighbors tell WSB in a statement that they are “disheartened and frustrated” but that they will not take it to court. (You can read their full statement later in this story.)
Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner required conditions based on the neighbors’ concerns to be added to the official text of the zoning exception:
*The sign is limited to 30 square feet
*Its operating hours are limited to 7 am-7 pm weekdays, 10 am-4 pm weekends/school holidays/breaks
*The sign can only display text messages – “no flashing, streaming, or scrolling text is allowed, and additional imagery, such as pictures, graphics, video display, or animation, is not allowed”
*”Static text messages may cycle no more frequently than once every 20 seconds”
*Local community announcements and public-service messages shall not comprise more than 10 percent of the messaging time”
*”The sign shall have no video capability,” and no ability to flash or animate
You can read the Hearing Examiner’s entire ruling here (PDF download), or embedded here:
Her written decision came a few weeks after a five-hour hearing on July 31st in her chambers downtown (WSB coverage here).
The city had approved the zoning exception in May, four years after it was first sought (some of the delay was explained as an expectation that the city might change zoning in a way that wouldn’t require an exception, but that didn’t happen). The Madison PTA had raised money for the sign in hopes it would improve communication with parents and the community, and also obtained a city matching-fund grant.
While the May approval triggered their appeal to the Hearing Examiner, neighbors say they won’t take the fight further, now that her final ruling is in. Here’s their full statement:
Statement from the Appellant group regarding the final decision to allow for an electronic changing image sign at Madison Middle School:
As members of the Appellant group working to reverse the Department of Neighborhoods Director’s Decision allowing for the departure to the zoning code, we are disheartened and frustrated by the Hearing Examiner’s final ruling to allow it to go forward. We are parents of children who were in, currently are in, or will be in, public schools. We completely appreciate Madison School’s interest in communicating more effectively with its community. We are also community members who value the quiet and lovely residential neighborhood of the Madison area. We do not believe the quality of communication the changing image reader board sign will provide to a small segment of the school’s community is at all in scale with the change in aesthetic quality and property devaluation the sign will bring to the larger neighborhood and nearby residences. Yes, we purchased homes near a middle school . . . a beautiful, quiet, site-friendly facility, existing within the permitted codes of a residential zone.
We believe there is something fundamentally wrong with a process that allows for money to be collected through a school fundraiser, and matched with neighborhood matching grant funds (taxpayer money), for a project that is knowingly against code, with no contingency plan for returning or redirecting the funds if a departure cannot be attained. It is much easier to push forward with a tool of low to moderate impact than to do the hard work of properly returning the funds, or seeking permission to redirect the funds to more effective tools available in today’s world. It is easier, but not right.
We also believe there is something fundamentally wrong with a process that does not provide for relevant public involvement until nearly all of the planning is complete, six years in, and spending of the money has already been initiated. The first, and only, opportunity for the neighborhood to participate was a token meeting, clearly viewed as a mere formality by the Department of Neighborhoods, the school, and the district. Just because the school district and schools are big doesn’t mean their interests are automatically of greater value than other group interests. The Department of Neighborhoods handling of these matters pits groups against each other, hardly neighborly. This decision does not bode well for residential neighborhoods throughout the city, particularly as the district wants to install such signs on any school being updated, regardless of neighborhood. This was the first residential school to be impacted. The door to more has been opened.
While a number of conditions were made to lessen the impact of the sign, it remains to be seen if those stipulations will be adhered to. Schools all over the district with these types of signs have a standing record of not following the guidelines for hours of use and type of display. The content is often sorely outdated and of questionable educational content. School administrations do not have the time to manage these signs effectively; they have more immediate concerns to focus on. The sign companies and district say the technology is there to set perimeters, though few follow them. Hopefully, Madison will set a new standard of cooperation and concern, and create a positive environment where policing of the sign is not left to the neighbors to complain.
It is truly unfortunate that neighborhood groups have so little protection or support from the city when faced with attacks to the codes theoretically set up to safeguard the quality of life for its citizenry. The appeal process is onerous and hardly citizen-friendly, with built-in protection against addressing the inequity of the process itself. We have spent countless hours of time, energy, and emotion to stand up for our neighborhood. We did not have lawyers, or budgets, or assistants, or deep pockets to push through this, but we did have the spirit and dignity to stand up for our rights as homeowners.
Did you choose to live in a residential neighborhood? If so, look out your front window. Or stand on your front porch. Drive, or walk, down your street and make that last turn to your home. Imagine a 30-square foot electronic message board facing you. Nobody chooses that.
On behalf of the Appellant Group
We are asking the district when the sign is to be installed and will add that information when we get it.