Kansas City officials, community leaders and representatives of schools and churches have tried for months to negotiate new rules on digital signs in residential areas.
But now the Raytown School District has adopted a position that on its face might seem odd for school authorities — defy the rules.
In violation of the existing zoning code ban on digital signs near residences, the Raytown district has just installed digital signs at seven schools within the city limits of Kansas City.
It’s all part of a clash between those who want to take advantage of this 21st century technology and those who worry about cluttering neighborhoods with Las Vegas-style lighting.
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“We believe we have standing in the state statute and the courts, that the school board has the final say in regards to signage on school property,” Raytown Schools Superintendent Allan Markley told The Star.
Kansas City zoning officials said they were aware of the violation and are investigating. They challenge Markley’s argument that the school board’s authority trumps the city’s.
“We are looking into it and considering our legal options,” said Assistant City Attorney Maggie Moran.
Some worry that the Raytown School District’s interpretation of the law will just open the door to a situation where no one follows the rules.
“It’s unfortunate the Raytown School District chose to thumb its nose at the city’s zoning laws,” said Councilman John Sharp, a former Hickman Mills school board member who fears others will do the same.
“Why wouldn’t every district that wants these do it?”
But while the zoning code on digital signs is under negotiation, Councilman Ed Ford said, it may be hard to throw the book at Raytown.
“I’m not sure we should do anything until we see what we end up with on the signage issue,” Ford said.
Ford said the ultimate solution may be to seek a judge’s opinion, called a declaratory judgment, clarifying just how much authority the city has on zoning decisions by a school board.
Markley says he’s sympathetic to people who want to guard against garish lighting near their homes. But there can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, given the different densities of Kansas City urban and suburban neighborhoods, he said.
He also points out that Raytown School District voters, including those in Kansas City, last April overwhelmingly supported a $22 million bond issue that included funding for the digital signs. The district had already installed signs at its schools within the Raytown city limits, where they are allowed, and within the last month added them to district schools in Kansas City.
Markley said he’s heard nothing but kudos for the signs, which share information on school activities, reminders about parent-teacher conferences and other messages.
“I’m opposed to the idea that people who do not live in our community have the right to oppose what the voters have already spoken on,” Markley said.
The rules on digital signs run the gamut throughout the metro area, from cities like Raytown and Lee’s Summit that allow digital signs near homes to many Johnson County cities that have blanket bans.
Kansas City’s debate got going in earnest last year after the North Kansas City School District installed non-conforming digital signs at three of its schools in the Kansas City city limits. Unlike in Raytown, school officials said they didn’t realize the signs, paid for by booster clubs, weren’t allowed.
Trying to avoid removal of those expensive signs, Ford introduced an ordinance last May that would have allowed schools or churches to seek a special permit to install a digital sign on an otherwise allowable monument sign. The plan had restrictions on acreage, how often the signs could change messages, and other limits.
But some churches and schools said the restrictions were excessive. Meanwhile, some neighborhood leaders feared a proliferation of signs, especially south of the Missouri River, right across from homes.
Under a revised proposal, churches and schools could seek council approval for signs on 15 acres, or 10 acres if on an arterial road and at least 100 feet from a residence. Messages could not change more than once per hour and would have to be turned off between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
City planner Patty Noll said the latest proposal represents a compromise between the Kansas City and North Kansas City school districts and some residents to protect densely populated neighborhoods.
But some churches still object to the acreage restrictions. And the City Plan Commission, a group that provides advisory recommendations to the City Council, appeared ready to relax rules on signs at a Feb. 17 hearing.
“The digital age is here,” Commission chairwoman Babette Macy told those in the audience.
But that was frustrating to neighborhood advocates who still want some rules and reliable enforcement. And some remain convinced that a ban is the best approach, or digital signs will soon be allowed everywhere.
“The lid on Pandora’s box will be open,” Carol Winterowd, president of a south Kansas City umbrella neighborhood group, warned in a letter to the plan commission.
The plan commission postponed further discussion until April, but some have suggested this will be a headache that may await the next City Council, which takes office in August.
John Sharp, who is term-limited out in August, says the city brought all this on itself by not requiring North Kansas City to remove its signs last year. He points out that when Rockhurst High School inadvertently installed an illegal sign some years ago, it was forced to remove it.
Nobody is saying schools near residences can’t have signs, he said, just not digital signs.
“I think we should enforce our laws, period,” he said.