Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Kensington fire station is fighting for its sign

Denied by the county, Kensington firefighters plan to appeal a decision saying they have to stop using an electronic message board

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Kensington firefighters are hoping to keep an $8,000 electronic-message sign permitted under town rules but restricted under county rules.

Leaders of the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department say the sign is needed to alert drivers and pedestrians about emergencies and department events.

In May, the Montgomery County Board of Appeals unanimously ruled that the scrolling-message sign located at the fire station on Connecticut Avenue violates the county sign ordinance.

Messages on electronic signs may not change more than once a day, according to the county ordinance. But the Town of Kensington’s sign ordinance exempts fire stations, churches and public libraries from restrictions on height, style or aesthetics.

Deputy Fire Chief Michael Kelley said fire department officials plan to appeal the decision to the Montgomery County Circuit Court by the end of the month.

‘‘This has been really frustrating,” Kelley said. ‘‘The crazy thing about the whole thing is that the same sentence that exempts the fire department from the town code says the town can’t be exempt from the county code,” Kelley said.

In November 2006, the station was told to take down the electronic sign that scrolled messages intended for motorists and pedestrians passing the station at Connecticut and Plyers Mill Road.

The station first put up the sign to replace one knocked down by a truck in 2005. Instead of installing the same kind of message board with individual letters that slide into tracks, the fire department decided to upgrade to an electronic message board and applied to town and county planners for approval.

‘‘Based on what we had heard, we thought it would be a rubberstamp approval,” Kelley said. ‘‘But we ran into a very restrictive planning commission” at the county.

Town and county planners approved the sign, but in 2005 when the messages began scrolling, county officials told the fire department that the sign was illegal. The department received a $500 citation and an order to remove the sign in November 2006.

The fire station appealed the fine and the county’s order, but in May the Board of Appeals unanimously decided that the county ordinance applies to all signs in Kensington, and that the town’s exemption was not specific enough to supercede the county ordinance.

The sign would comply with all codes if the message didn’t scroll or change during the day. But Kelley said the letters would be too small to read if the message never changed.

He said there would be no way to read the name, time, date and contact information about a simple event if it was listed on one static screen.

‘‘The ‘Breakfast with Santa’ message takes up two lines with just the basic [information],” he explained.

Roger Waterstreet, spokesman for the county Department of Permitting Services, said the intent of the sign ordinance is to improve traffic safety.

‘‘When the ordinance was written, it was considered that signs that move could be a distraction to pedestrians and traffic,” he said.

Mayor Peter Fosselman said fire stations, churches and public libraries are exempt from restrictions because they benefit town residents.

The fire department is a community service group that should have more leeway, he said. ‘‘It serves the public. It’s a nonprofit and they sometimes need these rule-exemptions to help the community.”

Kensington officials see the intersection as the largest and busiest in town, and messages scrolling through the sign benefit the town and residents.

Kensington officials said they could change the town’s ordinance to allow the fire station to keep the sign, but are more likely to work with county officials on a compromise.

Fosselman said he passed the issue on to the five town council members on Monday and asked the town attorney to evaluate the current ordinance.

‘‘The town fully supports the sign staying in place,” Fosselman said. ‘‘It can be carnival-like if it moves constantly, but they don’t have it set that way.”