Madison Middle School sign fight ends: Hearing Examiner approves zoning exception; neighbors ‘disheartened’

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:

Hearing Examiner decision on Madison sign

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.

Tori Smith
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.

34 Replies to "Madison Middle School sign fight ends: Hearing Examiner approves zoning exception; neighbors 'disheartened'"

  • Neighbor_here September 5, 2013 (12:52 pm)

    Big boo to the city for allowing this in our neighborhood. I was not aware of the progress of this and live very nearby. I think it will be a blight.

  • madashell September 5, 2013 (12:53 pm)

    The Apellant Group’s statement is very well-put. I wish you had the resources to take this to court.

  • yo September 5, 2013 (2:02 pm)

    Kudos to the city for approving what will be a valuable communication tool for our children’s school. The required conditions ARE reasonable.
    Today is a good day.

  • Brewmeister September 5, 2013 (2:12 pm)

    Unless you bought or built your house prior to the school being built, then why the fuss? You bought a house next to a school. Many schools have such signs and that should have been taken into account when you bought the house.

    It’s like buidling or buying a house next to a gun range and then complaining about the gun shot noise.

    Sorry to be blunt and I know I am over simplyfying it, but “buyer beware”.

    • WSB September 5, 2013 (2:22 pm)

      Brewmeister, the point the homeowners made here, whether you agree with it or not, is the *lighted* sign, which was NOT allowed in the zoning, and the reason this even came into a public-comment process. Freestanding non-electronic signs are – and they said they would not have minded that.

  • I. Ponder September 5, 2013 (3:45 pm)

    Exhibits 1 & 18 show renderings of different views of the building and sign from driver’s view and residences. Would be great to see them if you’ve got them.

    A 30 square foot sign is equivalent to 6 x 5 feet. I read that the distance from homes is 200 to 300 feet.

    While I may not WANT any kind of electronic sign on my street, this sign isn’t much bigger than many home TVs. I’m opposed to many uses of digital signage in general. They tend to be more blight than not.

    How awful an insult this sign will be to neighbors is open to opinion.

  • Jeff Schumacher September 5, 2013 (3:58 pm)

    I can sympathize with the home owners near the school and wish that the city, school district, and school itself could put themselves in the shoes of those home owners. It’s bad enough that the new LED streetlights are SUPER bright, this is add a whole new level of light beaming into their homes all the time.

    I wonder though, could something be negotiated with the school to have the sign turn off after 10pm or so?

  • Danno September 5, 2013 (4:07 pm)

    Welcome to dealing with DPD. These people have no problem stepping all over neighborhoods. A department out of control.

    • WSB September 5, 2013 (4:22 pm)

      Ponder – sorry, I don’t have electronic copies of any of the exhibits. The Hearing Examiner’s website has PDFs of various text documents, but not graphics or video.

  • Gene September 5, 2013 (4:18 pm)

    Brewmeister- I think saying ‘buyer beware” is pretty dismissive.
    Not sure moving into a residential neighborhood near a school that DOESN’T already have a sign you would necessarily assume a sign might one day be built. Madison is NOT on an arterial like West Seattle HS, & Lafayette on California Ave–or Sealth HS, on SW Thistle–

  • Neighbor_here September 5, 2013 (4:41 pm)

    Who in our neighborhood has a 30′ sq TV?! Well if they do, even the criminals wouldn’t steal that because it’s too damn big.

  • It Is All BS September 5, 2013 (4:51 pm)

    Department Directors and the unilateral decisions they make are far to removed from public scrutiny. When was the last time any of you had a chance to ask any of the Directors a question without having to march downtown in the middle of the day? The Directors of don, dot, dpd and housing are operating in a power hungry back room, and are only reachable by professional ‘activists’. It is all bs.

    I hear tell that don is having a 25 year anniversary celebration in October at MOHAI. I doubt don will be celebrating this wasteful and stupid sign efff’ up. Maybe someone will have the ca-hones to carry a picket sign into the celebration and remind everyone how far afield things have strayed at don?

  • Wes C. Addle September 5, 2013 (5:02 pm)

    According the article it says the latest the sign would be on is 7pm.
    This appears to be a non issue to me since the sign is on during the day.
    I side with the school on this one.

  • miws September 5, 2013 (5:31 pm)

    Jeff, from the article:

    *Its operating hours are limited to 7 am-7 pm weekdays, 10 am-4 pm weekends/school holidays/breaks



  • Genesee Hill September 5, 2013 (6:04 pm)

    All you folks know that I *ALWAYS* look on the bright side of things.

    Just feel fortunate that now, and in the distant future, you won’t have a homeless camp moving in your neighborhood.

    -Genesee Hill

  • miws September 5, 2013 (6:34 pm)

    ….you won’t have a homeless camp moving in your neighborhood.


    And that pertains to this topic how?


  • Nw mama September 5, 2013 (8:50 pm)

    The neighbors points are good ones. Why all the planning & money collection for a project that wasn’t to code? Why can’t citizens dispute this process? The city just says so? Lets get some better officials in here to clean up these processes!

  • Nw mama September 5, 2013 (8:54 pm)

    Maybe this was a good communication 6 yrs ago when this process started, but have you heard? There’s this new thing called texting, social media, blogs…. These methods are a *bit more wide reaching, but also quite targeted.

  • Jim September 5, 2013 (9:03 pm)

    I think the encampment comment was made with reference to the use of the word “blight.” A little perspective, I think.

  • miws September 5, 2013 (9:25 pm)

    Jim, I’m betting more along the lines of snark, rather than perspective.



  • Madison Neighbor September 5, 2013 (9:25 pm)

    I live next to Madison Middle School and welcome the sign! I don’t welcome the many neighbors that use the track/grass area as an off lease park. Or the trash left behind after football, and soccer practice. I also don’t welcome the illegal parking done by some of the parents using the sports fields. Park in front of our house I don’t mind, I do mind that you park on the corners making it impossiable for cars to turn corners safely while little kids are all over the place.

  • I. Ponder September 5, 2013 (10:33 pm)

    “…unilateral decisions they make are far to removed from public scrutiny.”

    I’m always amused at how some get their panties all in a knot about how nobody asked their permission to do anything. And they act as though they need to be consulted on everything all the time. Shockingly, sometimes decisions get made without your permission. That’s the nature of a city. And in this city hardly anything happens any way. Every project gets nibbled to deaths by ducks.

    And the sign is not a 30 foot square sign. It’s a 30 square foot sign. Ask a middle schooler to explain the difference to you.

  • Neighbor_here September 5, 2013 (10:43 pm)

    I agree about the parking and the kids running in the streets and the parents generally making it a nuisance to drive through the neighborhood because if how they park and leave their car doors open in the street. Who do we complain to about that?
    If you lived next to a single-family residential school would you like an electronic billboard in your neighborhood? Also, over the years it has become noisier because they raised the field. It is awful sometimes.

  • Cecelia September 5, 2013 (10:47 pm)

    I live near SSCC. Last year we were contacted about them wanting to get a lighted sign. I was worried about it but didn’t protest it.

    Now that it’s up I don’t even notice it. In fact it looks a lot better than the old sign that used those stick up letters. There is so much brightness from the the street lights anyway that it’s not like the sign is this sore thumb in the neighborhood.

  • observation September 6, 2013 (12:21 am)

    Amazing that people have time for this, it’s amazing that I have time to comment on this. Please read a good book or a bad book or take up a new hobby, one that actually creates something, and have a good day!!

  • madashell September 6, 2013 (6:31 am)

    If you understood the schmoozy back-room relationships that brought about the Neighborhood Grant and DPD permit process, you would be even more disgusted.

  • bswans11 September 6, 2013 (7:42 am)

    Observation: EXACTLY!!! Those who’ve spent hours fighting a sign: Consider spending that same time volunteering somewhere. We sure do have a lot of people here in WS that spend a LOT of time complaining and truly feel that everything is being done solely to spite them.

  • G September 6, 2013 (7:45 am)

    I’m dumbfounded that there would be this fuss over a relatively unobtrusive sign – at a school, no less. Most cities would welcome signage that promotes school activities, even those w/o children. And yes, there is a sense of school spirit that comes with a visible sign as opposed to something that comes on your igadget. Everyone here is so fragile.

  • Neighbor_here September 6, 2013 (7:57 am)

    @Observation: take your own advice. It’s not solicited and obnoxious.

    The SSCC campus is a much larger facility on a arterial. Much different neighborhood. Not a good comparison.

  • cakeitseasy September 6, 2013 (1:52 pm)

    It’s not a sports stadium, it’s a neighborhood middle school. How tacky to have an illuminated sign. Bummer for people who have to live around that. Hope there can be some sort of appeal.

  • madashell September 6, 2013 (2:04 pm)

    The fact that so many commenters feel thay have to opine on how I spend my time is telling: what a callous attitude you have. How would you like to be slammed for protecting your right and enforcing land use code. I expect if the Lusty Lady wanted to buy the house next door, you might divert your attention from that book you pretend to read. In any case, where is the level playing field? I use rhetoric in the example about strip clubs, but there are parts of town who find the land use codes don’t prevent such a land use right next door.

    The PTA spent an exorbitant amount of time bringing this outdated technology to fore, while alienating the nice neighborhood surrounding. Will it be worth the $30K and animosity? I doubt it. Should we even care? This district is experiencing enormous growth (that could have been anticipated.) Would you like a portable across the street? Or your kid in a portable for the bulk of her K-5 experience?

    I agree there ARE more important things, and this sign sure as heck ain’t one of them. What a waste of time and money.

  • MAS September 7, 2013 (7:52 am)

    For everyone saying in essence “let the buyer beware” and indicating that since they live near a school, they are getting what they deserve. You should note that when they bought their home, this was not allowed by law, just like any number of land uses that are disallowed due to the nature of the neighborhood. The neighbor’s complaint isn’t like the folks near the ferry dock that are now upset about all of the traffic. Their problem is that in order to put this sign in place, the city had to specifically change the rules that everyone who purchased land in the area agreed to when they bought their homes. The city did it unilaterally, in favor of a group of parents that likely less affected by the event than the folks that live across the street from the school.

  • It Is All BS September 7, 2013 (12:05 pm)

    @ I. Ponder @ 10:33 pm September 5, 2013 –
    Your are woefully uninformed about serious, planning, law and code decisions that are made by Department Directors. Take the DPD Directors Rule pertaining to the allowance of Boarding Houses/Apodments/Micro Housing. Or the Directors Rule made by the head cheese at the Office of Housing that allowed more low income housing units in a census tract than what was supposed to be allowed per law. These are not small decisions that should be allowed to be made without scrutiny. If you were to be affected by any of these behind the scenes actions in your home or neighborhood you might see things very differently.

    It is a red herring to say that nothing gets done or built in this city. Take a look around, do you not see all those new buildings, bridges, parks, bus facilities, street car, light rail, tunnel, libraries, playgrounds, skate parks that are or have been built?

  • I. Ponder September 9, 2013 (4:59 pm)

    It’s my belief, based on my first-hand experience at the center of community projects, that sometimes citizens will expend their energy and fury fighting projects of little consequence while ignoring important projects and issues. That’s their choice. Too often they super-size their perceived impact of the project for dramatic effect and to make themselves feel better about their commitment. After all, why not raise the rhetoric to the level of a battle against tyranny when it’s really much less than that. I mean no disrespect for the neighbors in this case. I was involved in community action some years back for a period of about 10 years and my opinions reflect that experience.

    We had a neighbor claiming newly installed traffic circles actually made cars go faster, but now they swerved dangerously. The city even did paid studies before making their decision against her premise.

    One thing I know to be true is that people don’t like change. Having the ability to distinguish meaningful or negative change from insignificant change isn’t a given.

Sorry, comment time is over.