Bethel seeks county code changes for electronic signs in Frederickson


The Bethel School District launched its latest effort to win approval for electronic readerboards at last Monday’s Frederickson Land Use Advisory Commission meeting (F-LUAC).

 The Bethel petition was offered as part of a larger presentation on about two dozen proposed zoning amendments to the County’s Comprehensive Plan, of which about ten affect Frederickson, and on which the F-LUAC voted.  This larger process was led by Dan Cardwell, Senior Planner of the Pierce County Planning and Land Use Service.

Addressing the specific Bethel amendment, known as code change “C-3,”Cathie Carlson, a BSD official from the Facilities and Planning Department, presented the district’s case for the controversial signs, saying that they expedite communication with parents and can also be used for public safety announcements.

 Currently, the Pierce County Comprehensive Plan has no zoning regulations for electronic readerboards, although many jurisdictions within the county do have restrictions, such as Frederickson, which only allows small electronic signs giving time and temperature.

 Bethel is looking to have that restriction lifted so that it can place a couple lines of text on an electronic message board at each school within the Frederickson boundaries.  In addition, it seeks to be able to put these signs on twenty-foot poles, which are also prohibited currently.  Ms Carlson said that the customary low-level “monument” design for signage is too vulnerable to vandalism.

 The district’s outreach to Frederickson comes after a mixed reception for electronic signage in Graham.  Two years ago, Bethel teamed with the Graham Fire and Rescue Department to seek the removal of the Graham Community Plan’s (GCP) total prohibition on electronic readerboards.

 At that time, the Graham LUAC voted to support Bethel’s plan in the interest of public safety, declaring that it desired to inform the public of Amber Alerts of missing and abducted children, and to support the fire department’s concern about informing residents to approaching storms and disaster responses.

 However, when the issue went before the Pierce County Council for final approval, the council expanded the zoning change to include all civic organizations, specifically naming churches as authorized to install these types of signs.

 As a result, 224th St then became vulnerable to the installation of over two-dozen electronic readerboards, and a public outcry ensued.  Complaints were filed with the state’s Growth Management Hearing Board, which over-turned the county’s new regulation, declaring that electronic readerboards were not in keeping with the pastoral nature of rural environments, such as Graham.

 However, the Bethel School District had filed permits for its Graham schools before the state overturned the allowance.  The district still has those permits and intends to use to use them despite the state’s ruling because the district has a “vested” legal right to do so, even though the signs are now considered a “non-conforming use.”

 One Bethel sign has already been erected within the GCP and has caused another round of public dismay.  An electronic readerboard was installed at the Elk Plain Elementary School on 22nd Ave shortly after the code change first took effect, and the frequency of change between messages was reportedly three seconds, far less than the newly established county standard of 30 seconds.  A public compliant was filed with the county, which led to a public confrontation at a weekly Pierce County Council meeting according to Graham resident Jim Halmo, and ultimately the BSD was compelled to alter the frequency.

 In addition, one church on 224th St, the Rainier View Christian Church, also took advantage of the window of opportunity in 2010 to install its electronic readerboard in front of its newly constructed church building.

 At the May 10 Graham LUAC meeting, Graham resident Bud Rehberg reported that the frequencies and types of messages on the RVCC sign were out of compliance.  Besides quick changes, the RVCC sign also utilizes video-like pictures that swirl and twirl, and also feature bright graphics.  Rehberg reported that another public complaint has been filed with the county protesting the church’s sign.

“It’s illegal,” Mr. Rehberg, the former chair of the Graham LUAC, said plainly.

 Despite the brouhaha in Graham, Bethel’s petition to Frederickson contains the textural language of the Pierce County Council code that got over-turned, including the contentious provisions of allowing civic organizations and churches.

 Seeking to avoid the mess in Graham, the Frederickson LUAC deliberated the BSD petition very carefully on Monday.

 “Who will manage these signs,” asked F-LUAC commissioner John Austin, seeking clarification on who will monitor the messages, their size, brightness and frequency of changes to the message.

 Mr. Cardwell jumped into the discussion at this point and said that the message boards would have to maintained by the owners, and that the only avenue for the public to influence the signs would be via the county’s code enforcement division.

The possibility of having an explosion of electronic signage on Frederickson’s crowded roadways clearly caused great concern with the F-LUAC.

“Too many signs can be dangerous,” said F-LUAC commissioner Penny Swanson.  “They can be a great distraction, particularly when there’s construction going on.”

 “I’m concerned with any flashing signs,” said F-LUAC commissionerJoseph (Kirk) Patterson.  “An interval of 30 seconds is still too short.”

 Commission president Dean Absher spoke to more fundamental community issues.

 “What gives me serious heart burn is my concern over having religious messages,” he said, adding that public signs are paid for by public tax dollars and because of that the public has control over what they say.

 “Religious signs would be outside of public control,” he said.

 A vigorous group discussion developed, and was joined by several community members in attendance.

 “Some of these signs are terrible to look at and read,” said Marilyn Saunders, who also announced that the South Hill Land Use Advisory Commission has recently voted to allow electronic readerboards only at schools, maintaining its prohibition on churches and public safety agencies, such as fire departments.

 Saunders also said that the question of frequency of messages at the Elk Plain Elementary School is still not fully resolved, and a brief argument developed between Mss. Saunders and Carlson on whether the current message is at 20 seconds or 30.

 Graham’s Bud Rehberg was also in attendance and said that “not a day goes by that I don’t get a complaint or questions about the Rainier View church sign,” and also declared that the federal government has begun a study on the dangers of electronic signage.

 Steering the discussion through an environment of rising emotions, Mr. Absher offered a summation that found widespread acceptance.

 “There is support here to allow these signs for public safety,” he said, identifying two key components – one, the signs display only public-oriented information, and two, are positioned only on the lands of public agencies, either schools, fire and police stations, or other governmental general-use properties, such as the county’s Central Maintenance Facility on Canyon Rd.

 Quickly, the Frederickson LUAC voted 6-0 to approve Bethel’s petition for electronic readerboards provided that the code changes authorizing them be limited to public agencies, thus excluding churches and other civic organizations from installing these signs.

 Later, when asked why Bethel’s petition included the controversial inclusion of churches, Carlson said the district simply adopted the code that the county council had approved prior.  Nevertheless, she acknowledged the value of the F-LUAC’s decision.

 “I like the language of public agencies.  It’s more responsive to public needs.”

 In addition, Ms. Carlson said that if the petition passes, BSD intends to install electronic signs at all of its schools in Frederickson, even those campuses that have multiple schools, such as Liberty Junior High and Pioneer Valley.

 “They’ll be facing different directions on different roadways,” Carlson said.

 Further, Bethel anticipates installing electronic readerboards at the Pierce County Skills Center on Canyon Rd, along with Clover Creek, Natchez Trail and Frederickson Elementary Schools.  Also, Cedar Crest Junior High will be receiving an electronic sign.

 As for Graham, BSD will soon be installing electronic readerboards at Rocky Ridge, Centennial, North Star, Nelson and Kapowsin Elementaries.  Frontier Junior and Graham-Kapowsin High will continue to share one sign.

 Surprisingly, Ms Carlson said that Graham Elementary’s traditional sign on Meridian Ave will stay, even though one million vehicles pass by it annually.

The matter of electronic readerboards now moves to the county’s Planning Commission, which will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, June 1 at 7 pm in the County Annex Building on 35th St in Tacoma.

 ©  2011  Mountain News WA




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