Newport neighborhood spars with church over LED sign

Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton is a reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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Frustrated residents of Newport’s East Row packed the Newport City Building last Thursday evening over the installation of an LED sign at St. John’s United Church of Christ. The lights, the residents said, are too bright and are interfering with their lives.

Newport’s East Row is the second largest historic district in Kentucky, and contains 1,070 homes. All the buildings in East Row are listed on the National Historic Register. As such, the homes must conform to the specific neighborhood guidelines laid out in the East Row Historic District Design Review guidelines.

St. John’s President Jan Knepshield told LINK nky that the purpose of the sign was to increase membership at the church, located at 415 Park St.

“Like everybody else, we are an old church that is fighting to keep members. We are fighting to keep members just like every other church,” Knepshield said. “In order to do that, we felt that if we could help the neighborhood and help our church at the same time, we might be able to increase membership, so we decided to go with this sign.”

But Newport resident Joe Klare told the Board of Adjustments at a special meeting last week that the sign violated section 15.1.E of the Newport Zoning Ordinance, which was adopted in 2016. Klare is a member of the Newport Planning and Zoning Board.

Notwithstanding any part of this Ordinance to the contrary, no sign constituting a nuisance, because of light, glare, focus, noise, animation, flashing, intensity of illumination as to unduly disturb the use of surrounding properties, as determined by the Zoning Administrator, or causing a traffic hazard, shall be erected, maintained, or continued in any zone,” the ordinance reads.

Klare argued that the sign was a “nuisance” and an “eyesore” for neighboring properties. He also said the sign was too bright and could create a safety issue at night for people stopping at the intersection of Park Avenue and E. 5th Street.

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The board ultimately voted 3-1 to deny the Newport Zoning Administrator’s approval of the sign. Knepshield is a member of the Board of Adjustments.

“Jan Knepshield, who sits on this board and applied for the sign, is not eligible to deliberate or participate in these proceedings in any way,” said City of Newport attorney John Hayden.

Knepshield said he was not surprised about the result of the vote.

Pictures that attempted to show the sign’s light intruding into people’s homes were passed around at the meeting.

Photo by Kenton Hornbeck.

“I don’t think an eye-catching, captivating sign has a place within a residential district,” Klare said.

Klare went on to say the public was not given an official change to weigh in on the implementation of the sign because there was no official public meeting or community notice. Knepshield said he shared information about the sign at a prior East Row meeting.

Klare told the board he was personally made aware of the sign the day it was installed. However, he admitted he did not attend the East Row meeting due to prior obligations.

“Unfortunately, the only clear remedy here is the removal of the sign in its entirety,” Klare said.

Rohan Klare, Joe’s wife, was concerned the sign sets a precedent for others to disregard the zoning ordinance in the future.

“If we allow the site to remain in place, what is to stop other businesses, organizations and residents from installing their very own right LED flashing signs in their front yards following the example set by you allowing this,” Rohan Klare said. “This is a slippery slope. If we don’t adhere to our zoning ordinances as written, then we will suffer the consequences as a city.”

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Knepshield disputes the hypothetical characterizations Klare raised. 

“They said the sign can cause an accident. There hadn’t been an accident at that corner in 25 years. That’s number one,” Knepshield said.  “Number two: They said it was causing traffic congestion. It wasn’t causing a bit of traffic congestion. I’m down there all the time because I’m also President of the church and there is no traffic congestion down there.”

John Rash, an East Row resident, told the board that he and his wife sit on their porch every day and are exposed to the sign’s glare on a “fairly regular basis.”

“It is definitely something, from the character of the neighborhood and being in a historic district, that is definitely unpleasant just from the fact that there’s this bright light,” Rash said. “Honestly, I will tell you that there’s a significant safety issue at the intersection of 5th Street and Park.”

Brian Steffen, director of Code Enforcement for Newport, said the sign was properly reviewed and approved.

“In 2017, a mere couple blocks away in the same zone as the church, a large electronic message board sign was permitted to be installed at the Campbell County Library,” Steffen said. “Further, looking through the record, a similar situation occurred at the LaRosa’s on Carothers Road where an electronic reader board was permitted to replace an existing static message board in 2014.”

Steffen cited a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which says the burden is on the city to prove the city has a compelling governmental interest in applying its zoning code in a strict fashion; the law also says no government shall impose a land use regulation in a manner which treats religious assemblies and institutions on less than equal terms than with a non-religious assembly or institution.

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Steffen said he felt as though the sign’s illumination was “not a compelling governmental interest” looking through the lens of the protections afforded to the church under federal law.

Steffen said limitations were placed on the functionality of the sign, such as the dimming of the sign at dusk, 15 second time changes, no animation, flashing or scrolling. However, Steffen did disclose that the church has seen some technical difficulties with the sign’s installation, including problems with the sign itself, its function, programming and the electricity supplied to it.

“Coupled with other precedent setting signs previously allowed, and the lack of public complaints about those, I felt as if the city was at risk of a legal challenge if the sign was ultimately denied,” Steffen said.

Knepshield told LINK nky that Newport is full of LED signs, and other signs around the city could be more intrusive and less safe than the church’s sign.

“I know there’s a sign like this one out at the high school. There’s a sign like this one down at the library. Then you’ve got the two big signs over the expressway,” Knepshield said. “You’ve got them all over town. We’ve got flashing stop signs all over the city. They flash red all day and night, and that to me is much more intrusive.”

St. John’s can appeal the board’s decision, but Knepshield said he is not going to comment on a potential decision at this time.

“We were going to use the sign to advertise things like the East Row Garden Tour,” Knepshield said. “We also decided we were going to advertise for their Christmas Tour, and advertise all of their meetings. There were just a lot of things that both groups could benefit tremendously from.”

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