An electronic billboard’s LED pixels on upper Whalley have illuminated a hole in the zoning ordinance, and sent politicians looking to tighten regulations before the Elm City starts to resemble Vegas.
The off-premise sign in BD Food Market and Deli’s parking lot, at 1057 Whalley Ave., is drawing drivers’ eyes to a double-sided, 230-square-foot advertising space, right at the intersection with Emerson Street.
At multiple community meetings in Westville this past month, neighbors expressed irritation that they didn’t have a chance to weigh in before the billboard went up, just past the buffer around the village’s historic center. They said the sign’s an eyesore and a distraction. One compared it to a large television set going up on the roadway.
State and local politicians are now checking over the permits to see if the sign can be taken down, baffling the owner, who said he made sure to follow all the city’s rules before he pulled his construction permits.
It turns out the city’s zoning ordinance doesn’t differentiate between vinyl printouts and digital displays. Alders are now looking to tighten regulations on electronic billboards before more go up and the Elm City starts to resemble Las Vegas, one said.
The city code allows “posters” in several business districts (BA, BB, BE) and all industrial zones (IL, IH). Generally 12 feet by 25 feet, these medium-sized advertisements may not exceed 300 square feet in area and 20 feet in height. They must be at least 250 feet away from any parks and historic districts and 300 feet from other off-premise signs facing the same direction.
In order not to distract drivers, the signs can’t have any moving parts, flashing or shimmering lights, major protruded lettering, or devices that emit “audible sound, odor or particulate matter.” The signs can cycle through the time of day, outside temperature and smog index after five-second intervals.
If the posters meet those requirements, they can be approved administratively, which is what happened with this one on Whalley Avenue.
Alex Churilov, the owner of Advertex, LLC, said his Southington-based company has a long-term lease to advertise at the spot. He’d picked it after presenting a list of 20 possible locations to city planners, who told him that all but five spots were excluded by the zoning ordinance.
He said an electronic billboard is much easier to manage.
“It’s a simple technology that has become very popular throughout the whole country,” Churilov said. “The main advantage is, first of all, they’re more catchy. And it allows the graphics to be changed instantly without paying to print a big poster that has to be mounted. The advertiser emails me a JPEG, and I can put it there remotely with the click of a mouse.
The sign will rotate through multiple businesses, including a pharmacy, a landscaper, two pizza places, one restaurant, and two non-profit organizations that have already signed deals, Churilov said.
When it’s dark outside, on cloudy days or in the evening, the sign will dim automatically.
Churilov said he hadn’t heard any complaints, except from Amity/Beaver Hills Alder Richard Furlow. “He spoke with me, and he was very unhappy. He said, ‘How come you set this up with no permits?’ I said, ‘I have all the permits.’ He was not happy with that answer, so he left and started calling all the papers,” Churilov said. “I comply with all the regulations that the city mandates, so I don’t know what else they’re asking me to do.”
After a recent community meeting at Lyric Hall, Furlow called the sign “anti-urban blight.”
I have family in Westville; I’m gonna die here,” he said. “This is personal for me.” He called current zoning law a “dumb piece of legislation” and said he’d prefer to see electronic billboards prohibited throughout New Haven.
He also called for a boycott of any business that advertises at the space. “Nothing until the sign comes down,” he said.
Churilov, who’s reachable at the phone number on the sign, said he’s willing to talk with neighbors about their concerns. As a kind of olive branch, he said he could offer free space to promote local events.
The sign hasn’t been turned on yet because Churilov is waiting for the final go-ahead from the state.
“Basically, it’s rubber-stamping,” he said. “If the city approved it, they don’t have an objection.”
New Haven State Rep. Patricia Dillon submitted a formal request asking the Department of Transportation to issue a rare stop-work order until the commissioner reviews the paperwork. But she warned that there is no guarantee she can get the sign taken down given that it conformed with city code.
“I do not have the power to place the stop-work order; have the power to make a big deal,” Dillon said. “The state does not have personnel to drive down Whalley Avenue and check. Why is it a problem if the local government approved it, which is not an unfair question.”
Unable to do much about the current sign, several alders are now looking at rewriting the municipal code to include stricter language for electronic billboards. Westville Adam Marchand suggested requiring a special exception for all electronic billboards.
“There’s a lot that we learn when something like this happens, some holes maybe in our local regulations,” said Marchand, who sits on the City Plan Commission. “Coming out of this incident, we’re going to look at what would need to change in our municipal zoning code and building code to make sure something like this wouldn’t happen again without more approval and process than what happened this time.”
Tom Talbot, the deputy zoning director, said he’d written recommendations several years ago that he’s eager to revisit.
“As with any regulation, these are from a different era. [Electronic billboards] have never been addressed in the zoning ordinance, but an issue like this mandates a different regulatory system,” said Michael Piscitelli, the new City Plan director. “It becomes self-evident when you see it.”
Piscitelli suggested that new regulations can be created by looking at how other towns regulate signage, drawing in particular on best practices established by the American Planning Association.