MONTVILLE, NJ – The Montville Township Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected one application to install an L.E.D. billboard in Pine Brook but approved another at their meeting on April 5.
The signs, proposed for #1 Route 46 East and #86 Route 46 West in Pine Brook, would replace existing, static billboards that have been in place for more than 60 years, according to applicant Outfront Media. The sign at #1 is across from the Montville Diner near New Road and #86 is across from the Pine Brook Home Depot. Refer to the photo gallery to aid clarity. The #1 Rte 46 sign currently has two panels of advertising, but the proposed L.E.D. sign would only have one panel.
Testimony began at the Sept. 6, 2016 meeting and continued for four total meetings.
According to the minutes from the September meeting, Greg Brinster of Outfront Media testified that the signs are computer-generated and any change in copy is done remotely. Images play for eight seconds and there are a maximum of eight different messages in a cycle.
“The sign adjusts its brightness automatically to ensure it is not too bright,” Brinster told the board, according to the minutes. “Each sign has a camera that monitors the sign 24 hours a day.”
Brinster told the board that the township could call in an emergent message to be posted on the sign. Amber Alerts for lost children could also be posted, per testimony at the April meeting. The signs are on secure servers and can be shut off at a moment’s notice, and there are no catwalks on the signs, precluding vandals from climbing them, Brinster told the board. The signs would not include any animation, flashing or scrolling, Brinster said.
Professional Engineer Joseph Staiger testified for Outfront regarding the effects on traffic. He stated, according to the minutes, that drivers tend to glance at signs for .29 to .35 seconds, according to a study conducted in 2012.
“People concentrate more on the road where there are more distractions than when they are on an open highway,” Staiger said, according to the minutes. “There are more safety issues when drivers text, eat or light a cigarette.”
He cited research that stated there was no difference in the number of accidents before the installation of an L.E.D. sign and after installation. At the March 1, 2017 meeting, he stated that texting or putting on makeup behind the wheel had a distraction rate more than two seconds long, which is the point when more accidents occur. Since drivers spend less than half a second looking at a digital sign, they are not a safety hazard, he said.
Brinster testified that the #1 Rte 46 sign has two panels at 238 square feet but the single L.E.D. sign would only be 231 square feet on a monopole. Wetlands would be disturbed but a permit was obtained from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the area would be re-seeded, he said.
Professional Engineer Brett Skapinetz then testified, according to the minutes, “the intensity of the light would be established with the construction of the new sign. The power of illumination fluctuates during different times of the day and night. The equipment keeps the illumination to not more than .3 foot candles more than the ambient lighting.”
Board Chairman James Marinello asked about the comparative safety of the new sign, and Skapinetz said the existing sign has posts that are rusted, while the proposed sign would have more modern materials.
At the Jan. 4, 2017 meeting, Towaco resident Jon Antal, General Manager of the New Jersey office of Outfront Media testified that the company has been using L.E.D. technology for nine years, and the ability to show eight advertisers on one structure allows for a reduced number of billboards in the area.
“The agreements signed with our advertisers meet local media standards and general good taste,” Antal said, according to the minutes. “Political and firearms ads must pass several requirements before they can be put out there on the streets. No pornographic, obscene, or attack ads are permitted. If negative feedback from the community occurs, we have taken down ads in the past.”
Skapinetz stated at the March 1 meeting that the #86 Rte 46 billboard would be 14 feet by 48 feet for the message portion, the same size as the existing sign there. For the pole height, April 5 testimony by Professional Planner George Williams cited a 38 foot height on the monopole sign, a one foot reduction.
Board Attorney Bruce Ackerman asked about the safety of a smaller or a larger sign, and Staiger said he found no difference between size and safety, according to the minutes.
April 5 Testimony
Testimony continued at the April 5 meeting, when Antal stated Outfront was willing to guarantee the town 90 minutes per 24-hour period, or one 8-second display every other cycle on one side of one sign for a township message.
He reiterated in his testimony that among the estimated 7,000 digital signs in the U.S. and approximately 125 in the state of New Jersey, there have been no traffic safety problems.
Williams stated that the pre-existing signs are a non-conforming use for the sites.
“Modernization will actually mitigate some of the non-conformities,” he said.
He cited the benefits of the digital sign, including the township use, the fewer site visits by workers, and the improved visibility of the sign. He felt that since the sites have been used for signs for so long, there was no substantial negative impact on the area. Board members had inquired at previous meetings regarding the signs’ effect on the hoped-for redevelopment in that area of Route 46, but he said it would not have any negative impact. He said it would help “promote a good visual environment” for the township and “would promote commerce in business districts,” quoting from the Master Plan. He also felt that modernization will improve the aesthetic of the sign.
In his closing comments, Outfront Attorney Louis D’Arminio asked if the board had had any complaints regarding the current signs. He said the town would be improved by the aesthetic of the new signs, and cited litigation that was overturned.
In E&J Equities v. Board of Adjustment of Franklin Township, he said, the board allowed static billboards but passed an ordinance forbidding digital ones, and thus denied E&J permission to erect digital signage. Upon appeal, the state Supreme Court opinion stated that static billboards are no more or less aesthetically palatable than digital, he said. The Franklin Board stated they did not have enough traffic safety evidence, but D’Arminio said they had some of the same evidence that was presented before the Montville Board.
“The Supreme Court found the board’s ruling had been made on ‘unsupported suppositions, fears and concerns,’” D’Arminio said.
D’Arminio further cited studies that stated drivers looked at digital signs for an average of .379 seconds, and static signs for .335, which is virtually no difference, he said.
The board stated safety concerns regarding the change of sign messages. Board Member Kenneth Shirkey called the testimony “woefully inadequate regarding traffic analysis, particularly in the morning hours,” and called the signs a “huge distraction.”
Board Member Ron Soussa made a motion to approve the application, but to increase the timeframe for message change to ten seconds per flip, to deny parking on Route 46 during the construction of the signs, and to make the public service message promise a deed restriction. In other words, adding enforceability to Outfront’s promise to allow the township’s use of the sign.
The board voted on the #1 Route 46 East sign, which is the sign near New Road. Members Shirkey, Margaret Miller-Sanders and Shelly Lawrence voted no, which defeated the application. However, for the #86 Route 46 West sign, only Miller-Sanders and Lawrence voted no, which allowed the application to pass. It was not apparent why Shirkey voted differently regarding the sign across from Home Depot.