Proliferation of LED signs sparks proposed ban

Commission instructs Port planner to draft ordinance that would outlaw new electronic message boards

EXISTING ELECTRONIC SIGNS like those outside the Ozaukee Masonic Center (left) and the one across Grand Avenue from it at Grand Avenue United Methodist Church would be grandfathered under a proposed ordinance change banning the signs in Port Washington. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington officials are considering a ban on electronic changeable letter signs — aka LED signs — which officials fear are becoming commonplace.

The Plan Commission last week asked City Planner Bob Harris to draw up an ordinance that would prohibit any new LED signs while grandfathering in current signboards.

The commission also suggested it may make an exception for gas stations, where these signs would make it easy to change prices, but said that the prices would have to remain static.

“They’re essentially movies. The animation is becoming brighter. The animation is becoming more ornate,” said Harris, who asked the commission to consider the proliferation of these signs.

“I think the technology is getting beyond our code. It will become an issue.”

Commission member Ron Voigt agreed, saying, “You get blinded by some of these signs. We don’t want to be a Times Square.”

Harris, who has referred to these signs as “mini jumbotrons,” said he doesn’t consider LED signs to be a problem in Port yet, but has seen how they have become an issue in communities like Milwaukee where they are “everywhere.”

The city’s current code allows these signs with the provision that they don’t contain animation, flashing or distracting features, Harris noted.

However, even when the city approves these signs with the condition that they don’t scroll messages or show animation, these signs are ultimately used with these features, he said.

Harris compared the LED signs with the pylon signs of the 1960s, which communities have spent decades trying to eliminate.

The commission considered four options:

n The Grafton model, where the signs are permitted throughout the community but prohibited in the downtown and central business zoning district.

n The Cedarburg and Mequon model, where they are prohibited except for schools, churches, theaters, gas stations and public service uses.

n The Shorewood model, where they are prohibited except for gas stations where prices must remain static.

Ald. Mike Ehrlich, a member of the commission, suggested that the city may want to consider prohibiting LED signs in the downtown specifically, saying, “To me, what’s most important is downtown and up Grand Avenue.”

But Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven, a commission member, said restrictions should be placed on LED signs throughout the entire community.

“There already is a proliferation of these signs,” he said. “As they come in one by one, it was a slow process and it didn’t seem that bad. But there are quite a few. 

“You come into the downtown and there are a few of these, but there could be many more. We don’t want to be ‘Anywhere USA.’ You come into Port and it has a certain character.”

Commission member Tony Matera agreed, saying the signs should be banned to “preserve the charm and integrity” of Port.

“They (LED signs) can get ugly. They can get gaudy,” he said. “They can be unattractive.”

Matera said the city should eliminate as many grey areas in the code as possible, like Shorewood does, but grandfather existing LED signs.

Grandfathering existing signs is important, commission members said, noting that businesses have invested a significant amount of money in them.

And some, like Port Washington State Bank’s Franklin Street sign, are “kind of a staple,” Ehrlich noted.

Others, however, are distracting, members said. Commission member Eric Ryer noted that he was driving past the Masonic Center, where the LED sign “was really dim and just as I passed it, it went completely white.”

Voigt, however, suggested that the city might want to allow a digital kiosk or signboard, noting Homestead High School in Mequon has a nice one that publicizes school events.

Voigt, who is president of the Parks and Recreation Board, noted that panel is “constantly” asked to post signs for events on the fence at Hill School Park, demonstrating the need for a community events board.

He also asked what would happen if someone wanted to build a $5 million theater in the city, complete with an LED sign.

That could be considered a special exception, Harris said.

The commission asked Harris to draw up regulations similar to Shorewood’s for consideration at the group’s Thursday, Feb. 21, meeting.

“This is just the beginning of a long process,” Harris said, noting the proposed change to the sign code needs to be approved by both the Plan Commission and Common Council and considered at a public hearing.


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login