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LED sign battle brews

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The city of North Little Rock finds itself mired in a policy-making skirmish — taking place in cities all over the country — over whether to allow electronic changeable copy signs. Local businesses, along with the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, say yes, arguing they should be able to use the latest technology to advertise services. Others, including some on the City Council, neighborhood activists and dark-sky advocates, say no.

The LED (light-emitting diode) signs are extremely bright and can change messages every few seconds. Where some see a unique advertising opportunity, others see a distraction and a nuisance.

Ward Four alderman Murry Witcher is proposing an ordinance to ban use of the signs, limiting their placement to so-called sign-overlay districts, which would be approved on a ward-by-ward basis.

“It is extremely hard to balance [everyone's interests],” Witcher says. “To a person on the council, our interest is to protect the residential areas and keep them from having obtrusive lights in their homes. The second most important consideration would be safety of the general driving public.”

A moratorium on permits for electronic signs expires at the end of January. Witcher wants to extend the moratorium, but acknowledges he doesn't have the votes to do it. But that could change.

Alderman Cary Gaines was opposed to the moratorium and an ordinance prohibiting the signs. But Gaines resigned from the eight-member council after it was announced that he was under federal investigation related to the indictment of an accused drug dealer and bookmaker in Cabot. The City Council will appoint an alderman to fill Gaines' seat. If the appointee is in favor of extending the moratorium, Witcher says, he'd have the necessary five votes to pass the ordinance.

At its Jan. 11 meeting, the council set a public hearing on the sign issue for Jan. 25. A vote on whether to ban the signs would come at a later date. Some on the council expressed concern that sign overlay districts would be so difficult to create they'd never be approved, and said the sign ordinance should either set out explicit criteria or name certain areas from the outset.

“The council is dragging their feet on this,” says Alderman Charlie Hight, also from Ward Four, who wants to end the moratorium and allow electronic signs. “It's gotten into a big mess in North Little Rock and there's only a few people who even mention these signs. It's the same six people preaching the same message for over a year.”

One of those people is Park Hill neighborhood association president Cary Tyson. Tyson says aesthetics are a main concern for those in surrounding neighborhoods, but safety is an issue too.

“I don't think there's any doubt that these signs impose an increased danger as opposed to a standard sign,” Tyson says. “They're made to draw your attention and keep it for an undetermined amount of time. That's what all the lights and bright colors are designed to do. Imagine driving down JFK Boulevard and there are 10 signs on one side of the street. If they change every five seconds, and each one changed at a different moment, you'd be seeing a different message almost every second.”

There's also the question of light pollution. Jim Fisher, president of the Arkansas chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association, says bright lights can affect people's sleeping patterns and harm everyone's view of the night sky.

“We want to make sure there's not so much lighting that it becomes intrusive,” he says. “The main concern is light trespass. We're not just interested in protecting astronomy and astronomers, we're really interested in the total environmental picture and that includes whether people can sleep or not.”

The council interviewed 10 candidates Jan. 7 during a special meeting and will likely choose someone to fill the vacancy at its regular meeting Jan. 25. 

“I'm certainly in support of good and appropriate signage,” Tyson says. “I just don't think it needs to be the kind that shines into someone's bedroom at 2 o'clock in the morning. I'm not opposing signs per se, but I'm opposing something that I think would be deleterious to our neighborhoods' quality of place.”

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