CRANBURY, NJ – What, exactly, is the definition of a “neon” sign?
That was the question up for discussion during the Feb. 27 Township Committee meeting, as local business owners and a resident concerned about the historic nature of the village area debated the issue.
Resident Richard Moody said he is aware of six establishments in the village that have neon or fluorescent signs advertising their businesses and that such signs are in violation of the township's ordinance prohibiting them.
“We live around the most wonderful collection of architecture, going back to the mid-1700s, so I think it's very imperative that we do control these signs,” he said.
According to Moody, having a neon or fluorescent sign does not necessarily attract more business than a “tasteful, painted” sign would, and he cited both downtown Princeton and Lexington, Virginia as examples of commercial historical districts making do without the glare of either offending category.
“To me, it's a cut and dried case: They should be removed and not allowed in the future,” he said. “Why do you have these ordinances if you're not going to obey them?”
According to the township code, sign standards for the Village Commercial Zone indicate that, “signs shall be compatible with the historic character of the Village,” and that “no fluorescent colors or neon signs shall be permitted.”
Additionally, projecting signs, “shall be fabricated from natural materials, such as wrought iron or wrought aluminum, or natural-looking materials and compatible with the historic nature of downtown Cranbury, and shall not utilize any garish, neon or Day-Glo colors,” the code reads.
One of the signs at issue is the New Jersey Lottery sign hanging in the window of Teddy's Restaurant.
Committeeman Jay Taylor, who was part of the original subcommittee that worked on the “neon” signs ordinance, said that Moody was mistaking the original intent of the wording.
“The issue of neon and fluorescent is referenced in colors,” Taylor said. “(Teddy's) lottery sign does not contain neon or fluorescent colors.”
Taylor also said the township does not prohibit lit signs, and that enforcing the ordinance for a sign as small as the one in Teddy's would be difficult to do, according to the township planner and attorney.
Teddy's owner George Nikitiades, who attended the meeting with his lawyer, said further restricting the town's businesses was “not playtime” and that the lottery is an important part of his bottom line.
“I need the lottery because a lot of people in this room don't come in to Teddy's,” he said. “So I need to support my restaurant, my family and everybody. The lottery has been a huge help.”
Nikitiades said he always supports the town with whatever it needs, in monetary and food donations, because he loves Cranbury, and that he pays more than $26,000 a year in taxes.
“That's a considerable amount of money,” he said. “Honestly, I don't want to hear about this again. (It's) ridiculous that I've got to call my attorney to come with me because I'm not comfortable with whatever decision is going to be made here or not made, or if (Zoning Officer) Jeff Graydon comes knocking at my door. I don't want it.”
Although their opinions on the sign ordinance differ, Nikitiades pointed out that Moody does support Teddy's with his patronage.
Sitting next to Moody as she addressed the committee, Gil & Bert's Ice Cream owner Christine Ondocin said that Cranbury does not welcome businesses the way other towns do.
“This is a tough town to have a business in,” she said. “It's tough to be successful, and we're (coming up on) our 10-year mark.”
According to Ondocin, one of the least expensive ways to promote a business is to have an illuminated open sign.
“How many hits do the businesses have to take in order to keep their heads above water?” she said. “I don't understand where it's going to end. When the town is going to admit that having businesses downtown adds to our village and does not take away from our village.”
When Mayor David Cook opened the floor to committee members to comment, Deputy Mayor Glenn Johnson said that Cranbury “is not Williamsburg.”
“It's a living village, it has businesses that have to survive,” he said. “If we tie their hands too much, I think we could be impacting in a way that could change our downtown.”
Referring to Taylor's assertion that Moody was misinterpreting the spirit of the ordinance, Committeeman Susan Goetz suggested that additional work may be needed for clarification and said that revisiting the sign ordinance might be beneficial for all parties involved.
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