School district seeks variance from Bethlehem Zoning Board to allow digital sign at A.W. Becker Elementary

Just days after the electric sign in front of A.W. Becker Elementary School was first illuminated in June, the Town of Bethlehem informed the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District that the sign violates their town code. A non-compliant sign could subject the district and its board members to fines and even criminal penalties unless the district receives a variance from the town.

The sign – which is intended to provide families and other community members information about school events and activities as well as health and safety – has been dark ever since.

On Oct. 21, school officials will appear before the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals to seek a variance to restore the sign, which was erected and first used in June. Three electronic signs were installed in the district as a part of the annual capital improvement funds provided through the LaFarge PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement.

Town officials informed the district that the A.W. Becker sign should be turned off soon after it was first turned on, claiming that it is in violation of town ordinances because of its potential illumination and moving text. They also contend that it is improperly located in a state right of way and that the district failed to obtain a building permit prior to erecting the sign.

“We believe the town does not have authority over this matter,” said Superintendent Robert Libby, noting that school construction is governed solely by New York State.

Section 1201.2 (e) of Title 19 in New York State Law states, “The State Education Department shall be accountable for administration and enforcement of the Uniform Code with respect to buildings, premises and equipment in the custody of, or activities related thereto undertaken by, school districts and boards of cooperative educational services.”

Libby said that he has been in contact with Carl Thurnau and Martin Doyle, representatives from the State Office of Facilities Planning who confirmed that the school district is not subject to town zoning requirements. “I was told that, as a good neighbor, the school district should consult with the municipality with regards to their zoning requirements, but we are not bound by them. In an effort to facilitate cooperation and good will, the school district has requested a variance from the town to allow the sign to be turned back on.”
Under state law, a community’s Zoning Board of Appeals has the power to interpret local zoning ordinances and grant variances to address specific cases of hardship or instances of improper classification.

“We are hopeful that Bethlehem’s Zoning Board members will agree to our request, as the sign is intended to improve and increase communication with our community members,” Libby said. “It is important for us to display messages about health and safety, school community events and governance meetings. For example, had our sign been in use this past week, we would have posted notifications of the Emergency Go Home Early drill, the Columbus Day holiday, and the Oct. 13 board meeting.”

Residents are encouraged to show their support for allowing the district to turn the sign back on by attending the Bethlehem Zoning Board meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on Oct. 21 at the Bethlehem Town Hall, 445 Delaware Ave., Delmar.

UPDATE 10/20/15

The Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk School District Superintendent, Robert Libby, will be asking the Bethlehem Zoning Board to table the A.W. Becker variance appeal at the Oct. 21 meeting.

“We have asked the Bethlehem Zoning Board to table our appeal for a later date,” district Libby said on Tuesday.

The request comes after the district received notice from the Albany County Planning Board that it had recommended the variance be disapproved without prejudice.

“We were unaware that the Albany County Planning Board would be discussing our variance during its Oct. 15 meeting,” Libby said. “We therefore did not present our position to that board.”

School officials are now reaching out to the Albany County Planning Board for further information and guidance in resolving the matter. “Tabling the variance appeal until November is in the best interest of the district and the Town of Bethlehem,” Libby said.

“We appreciate the support we have received from the community on this matter and ask for your continued support as we move forward.”
For now, the sign will remain off, as the district works toward a resolution.