Electronic Sign Sparks Fiery Debate in Sag Harbor

The new electronic sign outside the Sag Harbor Fire Department headquarters on Brick Kiln Road. Christine Sampson photo

A flashy electronic sign outside the Sag Harbor Fire Department headquarters on Brick Kiln Road recently lit up a social media debate over whether it belongs in the village.

While Sag Harbor Village Code says “no flashing or moving signs, except time-and-temperature information … shall be permitted in any district,” the zoning code also allows the village and its governmental agencies to erect and maintain “public signs deemed to be necessary in the public interest.”

The sign displays the time and temperature, along with public service announcements like “don’t drink and drive” and advertisements for events like pancake breakfasts and last month’s carnival.

When facing municipal zoning codes, fire departments usually are exempt because of a legal precedent called the “Monroe test” that weighs the “balancing of public interests.”

Those who want to erect signs here typically apply for a certificate of appropriateness through the Sag Harbor Board of Historic Preservation and Architectural Review (BHPAR), and if the sign falls outside the normal rules for signs, it gets handed off to the Sag Harbor Zoning Board of Appeals. Neither of those boards saw an application from the fire department. Nor did the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees.

“I don’t find it offensive, but it’s not something that I would have chosen,” said village trustee Ken O’Donnell. “My problem with it is that seeing that it is on village property … I feel like one of the village boards should have at least voted to approve it.”

Fire Department Chief Bruce Schiavoni did not return multiple requests for comment this week. In a letter to the village dated May 16, but which was not received by the village until August 31, Chief Schiavoni told the board of trustees that the previous sign was “falling apart.”

“We feel that it is beneficial to the community and many other departments in our area have ones similar,” he wrote.

The Board of Fire Wardens voted with one member opposed on May 14 to approve the sign, which, according to minutes of its April 23 meeting, was to cost between $29,000 and $33,000. The minutes do not indicate who voted “no.” According to the March 23 meeting minutes, a previous attempt at redoing the sign was voted down.

This week, some residents who live on the residential streets surrounding the sign seemed to have made their peace with the sign, which has been in place for about a month.

“I see it flickering away, but truthfully, it doesn’t bother me,” said Marie Schiavoni Mangano, a lifelong resident of Sag Harbor. “It’s a volunteer fire department and they do an outstanding job. If they feel as though such a thing would be a benefit, then I’m willing to live with it, although I’d rather not. It’s Sag Harbor. It has its little quirks.”

Another nearby neighbor, Matt Schiavoni, said he thinks the sign is okay.

“I didn’t know they were doing it and I was a little surprised, but it’s kind of grown on me,” he said. “I find it interesting. I like the time and the weather.”

Meagan McMahon, who lives in a house diagonally across from the sign, said it shines right into some rooms. “I think it’s kind of unnecessary,” she said. “It makes it feel kind of like an up-island fire department.”

And Randy Kolhoff, a Noyac resident who passes the sign multiple times each day while driving to and from the store he owns in Sag Harbor, said he dislikes it. He said he was shocked to learn the fire department didn’t have to go through the normal course of BHPAR approval.

“I’ve spoken to a few people in my neighborhood and we all just shake our heads,” he said. “I think it’s so visually loud that I’m kind of stunned. I just assumed it would have gone through the normal order, considering how strict we are with businesses. I would like to hear the justification of the expense and the community need. I’m sure there’s good intentions behind it … but you can’t really hold community businesses to the same standard if the municipality isn’t following the same rules.”

The fire department usually turns the sign off around 9 p.m., Ms. McMahon has observed.

“That’s at least helpful,” she said.