The pollen count isn’t the only thing rising in Rappahannock County this spring, as controversy over a new animated electronic sign in front of Rappahannock County High School is also filling the air.
Erected in late August, the sign’s placement was first brought up at one of the school board’s March budget hearings, when Rick Kohler, president of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP), submitted a letter to the board voicing RLEP’s disapproval.
The letter reads, in part, “a sign ordinance . . . states that backlit and animated signs are not allowed in this county. While we realize the school is exempt from certain ordinances, we feel it important that the school live within the spirit thereof.”
RLEP’s letter concluded with the request that the sign “be turned off or, preferably, removed.”
The issue was raised again at the April 1 meeting of the board of supervisors by longtime residents David Konick of Rock Mills and Flint Hill innkeeper Phil Irwin (also the vice president of RLEP), who both voiced their displeasure with the sign and lobbied the supervisors to remove it.
Konick described the sign as “an attractive nuisance,” and both men said they were worried that the sign was distracting, as trying to read it drew drivers’ attention off the road.
“That’s a bad place to get distracted,” Konick said.
Amissville resident Ron Makela brought up the sign again at the joint budget hearing held by the school board and the supervisors last week. Makela (who is also a member of RLEP) questioned the wisdom of the school board’s decision to spend $15,000 on the sign rather than new buses (a school board priority in this year’s budget) or other, more pressing needs.
Makela said he believed the sign “violated our own zoning ordinances” and petitioned the board to adopt a new way of thinking about money left over at the end of the school year. “Stop trying to just not give it back to the supervisors,” Makela said, encouraging the board to plan ahead for other projects rather than try to spend the money all at once.
At the school board’s monthly meeting this Tuesday night (April 9), interim superintendent Kathleen Grove in fact presented the board members with an information packet in response to many of the issues raised at the joint meeting last week. One of the report’s final pages lists the totals of local funding the board returned to the supervisors, per year, since the 1997-1998 school year. Since 2010, the board returned $121,321 – funds which were then (as is their option) reallocated to the board by the supervisors.
However, between 1997 and 2009, $633,562.87 was returned to the supervisors and not reallocated to the school division, though County Administrator John McCarthy said he “couldn’t recall a year where the [school] board asked for the funds and didn’t receive them.”
School board chairman John Lesinski and board member Amy Hitt defended the board’s decision to purchase the sign at the joint meeting, with Hitt saying that “it’s the little things that make kids want to come here.”
Hitt, who said she loved the new sign, also pointed out that the school board “doesn’t have to follow the county’s zoning ordinance.”
McCarthy said that technically the school board is exempt from the county’s sign ordinance, as are the county’s other governmental bodies. Because that spot was already zoned and approved for a school sign, the board didn’t have to submit any other permits and could place a new sign immediately.
Nonetheless, although the board did nothing legally wrong by placing the new sign, the decision hasn’t been popular with much of the the community.
“The sign cost the taxpayers $15,000. We essentially spent tax dollars to put up a sign that goes against the wishes of a majority of the county residents,” wrote Makela as part of a discussion on Rappnet, the local email list-serve.
“Was anyone consulted, beyond the school board, for likes or dislikes?” wondered longtime Huntly resident Nol Putnam, also on Rappnet. “I can think of a number of better uses – starting with stuffing the Friday book packs with books in addition to food.”
Numerous other posters in the email threads decried the sign’s construction, describing it as “an eyesore” and “hard to read,” though at least one poster approved of the idea.
“I think the sign is too busy and hard to read without stopping in the school turn lane,” said Sharon Kilpatrick of Slate Mills. “The old sign was not satisfactory . . . an electronic sign is a good idea, but that thing was up before the public could weigh in.”