fire and brimstone

Well it turns out I have another post in me for 2020. And it’s about a 12 foot high sign for a church that contains LED. The church keeps saying the entire sign is not LED, so I will add that slight clarification although to me a 12 foot high sign with LED is a 12 foot high LED sign and the rest is a game of captain semantic.

A while back, Covenant Presbyterian Church on Lancaster Avenue or Route 30 in Frazer decided they wanted a new sign. They filed an application with East Whiteland Township:

I knew about this application because I had seen it somewhere on the East Whiteland Township website. I don’t recall exactly what it was but I think it was a meeting agenda or something. Digital billboards and electronic signs are a hot button topic in East Whiteland, and the township is currently in some settlement agreement with a shall remain nameless billboard company that will involve a true Sophie’s Choice of where do the ugly signs go to make this issue go away. Whatever happens it won’t truly be a win for the residents.Maybe the township solicitor will think it’s a win because it’s easier to push settlement conferences than to fight? Yes that is an actual question in my mind because I think the solicitor is just tired.

Regarding that find entire saga on the East Whiteland website HERE and see:

But back to Covenant Presbyterian. They want this sign. But it requires a zoning variance. So a hearing notice went out to a small amount of folks within the legal zoning notice defined area, and one local businesswoman posted about it in community Facebook groups. Word spread like wildfire. Some, like myself, had told the township prior to the hearing (which occurred last evening) how we felt about the proposed sign Covenant Presbyterian wants, and did so again, both by email and public comment before the zoning meeting was continued to January 25th at 7:15 PM (another zoom meeting.)

In the spirit of full disclosure I let the church elders/pastors know how I felt along with the township and community members.

What I said was:

Covenant Presbyterian Church does not NEED a 12’ high LED sign, they WANT one. Why is it a church of all things wishes to have a sign more appropriate for something on the Las Vegas strip or NYC’s Times Square?


Not to be irreverent, but God already knows they are there, as do all residents of East Whiteland. We can read their existing signage just fine and it is size and style appropriate for a church.


Let’s not forget the small LED sign of ridiculous brightness at Lincoln Court that no one controls and the numerous complaints to the township. Or the Gerhard’s sign that is also garish and too bright.


Also to be considered are the electronic billboard issues that the township is already embroiled in, which no one wants. If you approve this monstrosity of a sign at a church how does it affect other sign issues?


Other factors to be considered are light pollution and that is a very real worry. That is a proven environmental concern, just like it is indeed a distraction to drivers. And some drivers are blinded by these signs and I know people with medically documented neurological and health issues who can’t drive into the front of Lincoln Court because that sign which is lit 24/7/365.


Also shouldn’t we remember East Whiteland’s overpriced Route 30 corridor plan? Do you all really think people are going to want to live adjacent, next to, across, or down the road from this sign or any other electronic billboard? How is a sign like that in keeping with revitalization plans?


Does anyone care how this will affect existing residents who live close by?


This church wants to what amounts to an electronic billboard. It is out of character for a sweet looking church. It is an ugly and unnecessary concept.


The community deserves better.

Needless to say, my thoughts on the sign were not well received by the congregants. It became a full fledged digital online Salem Witch Hunt meets the Scarlet Letter. God help you quite literally if you dared said you were opposed to the sign. Most of the knitting needle-like prods were done by church ladies, and wow, right? Nothing like that cozy feeling of community fellowship, right?

All day these folks went at it in various community groups. Anyone who opposed the sign was anti-church and anti-christian. And then there were the ones who specifically did not like me because of what I said. I needed to be “reined” in. They said I did not understand what I was saying when I said “bless your heart.” That just made me laugh out loud when I read that. I actually do understand and I had actual southern ladies explain proper usage to me, bless their hearts. Yes I was deliberately sarcastic with some of them because their ridiculousness and fake piety deserved it. It was a day of God wants us to love our neighbors unless they are against a 12′ LED sign in front of the church.

We are all bad people if we don’t want this sign because their church wants this sign. Want being the operative term here. They don’t understand the difference between want and need, which is a somewhat important concept when it comes to zoning matters and proving hardship if denied or to avoid denial.

So then there was the meeting. 30 square feet overall to 49.8 square feet overall is what they want as per the Zoning Hearing Board that we heard on the meeting. That is not an insignificant difference is it?

And a want at the end of the day is not a hardship. The man presenting the church plan also essentially said they want a bigger sign because others have big signs. Not churches, businesses. And then there was that question they raised of a different zoning classification and to that a resident asked the simple question if they wish to reclassify, will they also pay taxes since non-profits generally escape them on real estate? (That was met like the proverbial fart in church as a comment.)

Throughout, East Whiteland’s Zoning Hearing Board lawyer gave both helpful and unhelpful commentary. This attorney’s law firm also does some work for Easttown I am told? Like East Whiteland’s solicitor is also the solicitor of Upper Merion? So many municipalities are related by these relationships and don’t even realize it, do they? (But I digress.)

My comment shortly after they determined party status and before they continued the meeting until January 25th at 7:15 PM (and I keep reminding you because East Whiteland’s Zoning Hearing Board attorney kept reminding people there would be no other notice and heck they didn’t even post last night’s meeting notice until this morning) was simple:

I am struggling after listening to the church’s presentation and what amounts to me as a sort of straw man argument on the part of the church. And I mean the church no disrespect saying that, because the good work and good deeds of the church have never been in question, and truly and sadly can’t really be justification for a sign change like this. No hardship has been proven, and again need vs. want are two very different conversations.

I also remarked as a breast cancer survivor of several years still on cancer meds, one of the side effects is the fact the meds affect my vision. I am growing cataracts. Not huge ones at this point, not at a medical point to be removed, but it means that super bright lights have a very negative effect and some of those LED signs (like the one at Lincoln Court) almost have a temporary blinding effect or I see lots and lots of spots. I also remarked how people with know neurological defects that are medically documented go out of their way to avoid these signs, including in our own community.

Why is it that these signs seem to be more important than how the residents feel about them and how they affect residents?

Here is a summation from someone who was on the call. Their words, not mine:

Last evening’s meeting was instructive and illustrates, yet again, how Zoning Hearing Board’s are not staying true to their mandate.


The Covenant Presbyterian Church applied for a variance in regards to a new sign they wish to erect on Church Road and Route 30 where the currently have a 30 square foot, old fashioned sign. The regulation in East Whiteland states that signs should be no more than 20 square feet in that zoning district and 8 feet tall. I presume the applicant was grandfathered in under older rules.

Fine.


The applicant wishes to erect a 50 square sign that is 12 feet high. They provided no real hardship but one of the individuals did recite all the good work they do in the community. I am certain that is true and people I know, who are against the placement of the sign, tell me that is case. That has ZERO bearing on this matter. The fact is that the applicant needs to illustrate a true hardship.


This is a “dimensional” variance which carries less of a standard than a “use” variance. Still, this is the benchmark the applicant must meet – “the standard approval for a dimensional variance is “practical difficulty”, which courts have defined to mean that strict compliance is “unnecessarily burdensome” and granting the variance would “do substantial justice to the owner”.


The applicant came nowhere near this in their presentation. Frankly, I was embarrassed for them. The reason they want to do this is because they want the sign. Even one of the Board members (I believe it was the Chair) said, “I am having a hard time finding a hardship here”.

Precisely.


This should have been a clear denial. Many residents spoke on this matter, the majority in opposition. This includes at least 2 members of this group. They were spot on with their remarks. Additionally, a business owner across the street who opposed the sign stated, “if you make this exception, I will be back for mine next”.

Exactly.

The slippery slope. Did I mention that half of the sign will be a bright, LED with changing messages? Yes, the same type of nonsense we see at the Giant with the light that is blinding.


A denial did NOT happen. Instead, the Zoning Hearing Board decided to enter into public negotiations with the applicant. It was like an episode of “Pawn Stars”. How about 40 feet? Well, we need it a bit lower. Oh gosh, maybe a little bit but we are not sure how much lower we can go. Yes, that is a paraphrase but it is what happened.


The role of the Zoning Hearing Board is to adjudicate on the matter at hand. They were to rule on whether or not there was sufficient hardship for the applicant to receive relief on a 50 square foot, 12 foot tall sign. That is it. Yes or no. It is NOT their role to negotiate. That should happen with Planning Commission. Then, the PC can provide a positive or negative recommendation to the ZHB who should still apply the same hardship standard for a dimensional variance as detailed above. What occurred last night was a complete joke. The applicant needs to meet that standard as long as they are proposing to erect a statue that is not within the zoning regulations. I could see relief for a 30 square foot sign since that is what they have currently. If there is no hardship at 50 feet, there is still no hardship at 40 or 35 feet. Essentially the ZHB is shifting the burden off of the applicant which goes against the Municipal Planning Code of PA. But hey, does that really matter anymore?


Contrary to the opinion of some, the burden is NOT on the public to first prove harm in this case. The first hurdle is for the applicant to show a true hardship. Incredibly one of the applicants stated that a smaller sign would not be a hardship and a member of the board basically agreed.


Yet, the matter was continued until January 25th so the applicant could make another proposal. This relief should have been denied. Then, the applicant could reapply with a smaller sign if they chose to go that route. The way Zoning Hearing Boards are acting now (and we have seen this in Easttown and Tredyffrin) is NOT in the interest of the community at large.


Regrettably, it is extremely difficult to remove members of a Zoning Hearing Board before their terms are up even if there is justification. I won’t go as far as to say that is necessary here but I know in another township a board member should have been removed already but is still serving due to the reluctance of the township to do what is necessary.


It is up to US to be a check on the Zoning Hearing Boards. We need to hold elected politicians (and those running) accountable for their appointments. Automatic renewals (like those that occur in Easttown for example) for members of Planning Commissions and Zoning Hearing Board must end!

This Zoning Hearing Board meeting last night made me remember the first one I ever attended as a then brand new resident. I went because of a proposed land subdivision that would directly affect our next door neighbors and us via potential stormwater management and I wanted to make sure I knew where the septic was going (which incidentally didn’t end up exactly where it was supposed to for whatever reason.)

At this very first Zoning Hearing Board meeting now years ago, I literally knew no one except the neighbors and them barely. Ironically I knew who the then Zoning Hearing Board Solicitor was because they were politically active with the Radnor Township Republicans way back when or something along those lines. A lot of the Zoning Hearing Board Members back then were elderly and I swear one gentleman in particular kept nodding off. He looked like central casting for the cute grandfather and in fairness, zoning meetings are not always exciting.

At this meeting I met some General Warren Villagers for the first time. They were there because of the then Cube Smart proposal (which is now built.) I remember feeling like they weren’t treated very well as residents which to me was surprising because Lower Merion Township Zoning Hearing Board was always decent to residents even if they had to reprimand them during a meeting.

The way meetings were run where I was from versus moving out to Chester County were and are vastly different. We had a literal timer on public comment (3 minutes individuals, 5 minutes groups), but at Lower Merion Commissioners meetings, public comment wasn’t always the last thing. And the zoning and planning were vastly different and so were the lawyers representing the municipalities. Zoning decisions were never instantaneous and the lawyers on the zoning hearing board in Lower Merion ran a tight ship and treated it like court proceedings. Everyone understood the boundaries and the procedure. Out here I am still trying to figure it out at times, and we’ll leave it at that.

I personally feel that the LED sign issue with Covenant Presbyterian should not have proceeded last night. I kind of think it should have been pulled from their agenda. I do not believe I will change my mind between now and the Zoning Hearing Board continuation meeting on January 25th at 7:15 PM.

However at the end of the day what I find the most troubling about the issue is the way residents who are supporting the church and are even members of the church or are possibly even related to people in the church are behaving and how can you blame anyone for having concerns? And this doesn’t just happen with these particular people over this issue. It’s the behavior patterns that some groups or even communities of people are seemingly oblivious to.

Yesterday in addition to the flame wars on community Facebook groups, there were the private messages people received. Some annoying, some borderline threatening, all inappropriate. They are just as bad as what happens if you dare criticize a school board or school district out here. And the messages and comments on the sign issue resumed after the meeting had concluded.

If you are against the sign, you are an enemy of the church community as far as these people are concerned. One guy also complained about those of us who protested the sign and participated in the meeting because there were very few people who showed up to the meeting in support of the sign and spoke. I mean HUH??? That is such a head scratcher because how are we responsible for the church supporters not showing up and publicly stating they support what their church is doing? Then there were the people who said all people online do is whine to the people who actually tuned into the virtual meeting if not participated with public or written comment. Again …..HUH?????

I actually had a very nice email from Rev. Dr. Moyer of Covenant Presbyterian today. He is a nice and thoughtful man by my estimation, but sadly that is not enough to mean they will get oe should get their variance on a sign they want but don’t really need. It’s great they want to get their message out, but the world is their oyster and an LED sign 12′ tall is not the only avenue of communication in this big wide world in which we live. I did write back to him my thoughts. I am happy to share them here:

Dear Rev. Dr. Moyer,

I truly thank you most kindly for taking the time to respond to me. It speaks volumes as to your personal character.

I will be honest that I still am against a sign that is LED and whether it is all LED or partially LED is somewhat of a conversation of semantics. I would like to think you can get your word out most effectively without having to do it with LED at all. And that is really what the community wants.

However, a bigger (and hopefully short term problem) there are many of us in the community, now myself included, who don’t know that they will ever truly feel comfortable or welcome for at least a while in the presence of anyone from your church community given the way people who are against the sign were treated by church members on social media.

Perhaps you and your fellow pastors do not feel responsible for how your flock behaves on social media and outside the four walls of the church itself, but it certainly bears reminding to all that they are the larger face of your church. After all, that is often what draws us as human beings to houses of worship: the people we know or have met who are already there.

I was not happy to have to deal with these people from Covenant yesterday and I was disturbed at the woman who suggested local businesses who were concerned about the sign should be boycotted. I don’t find that to be particularly Christian.

And the suggestion to not patronize any local businesses in a year where so many have gone wanting made it just wrong. Maybe I see this a little more personally than others because I have friends in other areas who are out of work, have lost family members to COVID-19, and or have had to make the sad decision to close a small business because COVID-19 made it impossible for them to stay open.

I realize because some of the people defending the church sign are literally family, and also because a lot of your membership feels like family they feel more strongly even than us on the outside over this issue. But to verbally barrage fellow community members like that gives me pause. Not wanting the sign is most certainly NOT an attack on your church or being Christian, it’s simply NOT wanting the sign for whatever reason.

In the past, I am one of those people that used my position in the community as well as my social media abilities to get the word out when your church needed donations for things like the food bank. There are times when God didn’t necessarily give me the bank account to write hefty checks, but he gave me a voice for a reason. And I always try to use it for good.

After yesterday, I’m going to have to hit the pause button before I’m supportive again, and that actually is a crisis of conscience for me because you’re a church. But community people who belong to your church need to act like it. And I say that as someone who was raised Catholic and knew wonderful priests and nuns growing up, and have also had friends for years who are among the truest Christians that I have ever met, as well as those who are Protestant ministers and pastors elsewhere.

But to throw verbal stones at people because they are not mirror images of who you are and what you believe is something that always troubles me – and I’m not just saying this is a fault of the members of your church because it’s most certainly not. It’s a negative aspect of human nature that I sometimes ponder. It’s also sort of like a community-wide disease around here sometimes. And as a man of God, I think you can understand that. Except because you have been a pastor for so many years, you can look past this more easily than a lot of us regular folk.

Again, I am happy that you took the time to respond to me. You seem like such a nice person and I wish we could be on the same side of this sign issue. But sadly this is an issue greater than your church and one which weighs heavily on the community at large.

I am sure I will see you virtually at the next meeting, and maybe sometime when COVID-19 is behind us we could have coffee or tea and meet in person.

Thank you also kindly for the blessings, after 2020 we all can use them no doubt.

Next is how this post got the title it did. It is because of these people who want the sign and belong to or support the church being so unpleasant that I titled this post fire and brimstone. It’s the way it made me feel. That whole Salem Witch Trial Scarlet Letter effect.

Something however I read that gave me hope was a nice way a local women said her “no” to the LED sign:

Please reconsider. Mary and Joseph didn’t need anything but a star to guide them. The Lord himself knows you don’t need a lit up sign to gain parishioners or to share messages

Next up is the January meeting. In between I am sure lots of community discussion. Or what I hope will be actual discussion versus social media flame wards and gang mentality.

Here is hoping in 2021 people learn to behave a little differently towards different opinions.

Here’s hoping in 2021 people more locally can actually learn to appreciate the differences in other human beings for whatever reason. People talk a good game about inclusion and understanding but it’s time to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Peace out.

No photo description available.
Flat Hal the plot plan man is 5′ 8″ tall. Him next to the sign is an idea of human scale.

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