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Western Pa. communities contemplate restrictions to bright digital signs

| Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
The new electronic sign at Big G Tire Pros in Bridgeville along Washington Pike on Tuesday March 25, 2014.

When Ross resident Shirley Smith opens her windows on balmy nights, it's not just warm spring air that wafts into her living room.

Bright light from a nearby digital sign that resembles a big-screen TV on a pole, flashing messages for a local plumbing company, shine past her room-darkening blinds.

“It's pretty bright,” said Smith, who has lived in her home on West View Avenue, off McKnight Road, for 18 years.

The growing popularity of digital signs with LED lights and flashing messages outside businesses across Western Pennsylvania has some community leaders shielding their eyes and rethinking ordinances, especially for areas where commercial districts abut homes.

“I didn't know much about digital signs,” said Smith, who initially wasn't concerned about the sign. “Most of the ones you saw were at the banks that just showed the temperature.”

Citing looks, safety concerns or annoyed residents as reasons for change, communities such as Ross, Sharpsburg and South Fayette are taking steps to dim lights and manage growth of the latest advertising medium.

Buddy Swisshelm, regional manager of national sign company Signtronix Inc., has been working in the digital sign business for 15 years and said LED outdoor digital signs are “exploding” in the area.

“It's exactly what the consumer wants,” Swisshelm said, noting that the signs are cheaper than billboard space and that messages can be updated frequently.

Steve Gerson, president of Visual Information Systems Signs of Mt. Lebanon, said signs are getting cheaper. A sign that can feature one color is about the same price as a sign, like one his company recently installed at Big G Tire Pros in Collier, that can display nearly limitless colors.

“The technology is unbelievable,” he said.

Collier's sign ordinance allows LED signs but restricts size and illumination, said Tom Plietz, the township's chief building and fire code official.

Smith said the local plumber has been accommodating, and has dimmed the sign before. “If I had a business, I'd probably put up a digital sign too,” she said.

Swisshelm said that a few years ago, his branch of the Virginia-based sign company installed one digital sign every four months. Now, he said, they put up hundreds each year.

Ross' sign ordinance regulates size, brightness, location and message content, but resident complaints compelled commissioners to organize a committee to reexamining the ordinance.

“I'd rather be proactive on this than reactive,” Ross Commissioner Steve Korbel said.

Bright signs also are a concern in South Fayette, and township officials are considering modeling their sign ordinance after neighboring Upper St. Clair's, which bans digital signs entirely.

“Anything existing would be grandfathered in,” township Manager Ryan Eggleston said.

Eggleston said South Fayette will work to be attuned to businesses' needs, but he noted that the signs are not prevalent yet. Several businesses in the township have digital signs, he said.

The issue will go to commissioners after the planning commission makes a recommendation.

Sharpsburg is shaping a new sign ordinance that may ban flashing signs, in response to recent growth in the business district.

“It's another building block to continue to make Sharpsburg appealing to outsiders as well as residents,” council President Karen Pastor said. “Fair and reasonable restrictions are necessary.”

Kelsey Shea is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or kshea@tribweb.com.

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