When Teaneck met Lord Chesterton (on reducing bureaucracy)

For several years I’ve been working at revising certain sections of our Township code. One of the sections I’ve focused on, concerns our sign ordinance and specifically, “uniformity”.

Teaneck’s Code Sec. 33-18(c)(5)(e)(6) reads:
Uniformity. Business signs for each occupant in a building with multiple occupancies shall be uniform and compatible in height, placement and design and to the extent possible color and letter font type.

In the back of my mind whenever I ask to remove or alter a statute or ordinance that we have on the books is the parable of Chesterton’s Fence1.  The ordinance was created for a reason, after all.  And unless one understands the history and background, removing it may make you understand that the alternative to bad can sometimes be worse.  This wasn’t something taken lightly.

The idea was to make sure we don’t have signs that are a blight. Sadly, the direct result of this ordinance is that businesses have chosen other places to open.  Those that do open in Teaneck, find that merely wanting a color that doesn’t appear on a neighboring business sign requires an appeal (with a fee) to request a waiver.  The sign makers, counsel or other representatives (for more fees) show up to a planning board meeting to argue the need for an alternate color or size lettering.  And how many of the signs, snagged for “uniformity” by our building department, have been denied?

None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
(I have not been able to find a single one going back nearly a decade.  If you can, please let me know.)

My request to remove the uniformity requirement has been echoed by the Township Building Department staff (including the zoning officer who denies the permits based on uniformity).  The building department’s zoning officer endorsed the request to remove the requirement from our ordinance before the unanimous vote of the planning board to request the Township Council do so on July 27th.

And last week, on September 5th, after the zoning sub-committee also assented to the endorsement to remove uniformity, this happened:

A motion was made by Councilman Sohn and seconded by Deputy Mayor Katz to eliminate sign uniformity from the Teaneck Code.  It passed by a vote of 6 to 1.
During discussion of the motion, Mayor Hameeduddin said, “I never drove around this town in my 35 years and said that that sign doesn’t belong here.  And I think that we gave a lot of people, a lot of hard time through regulation… but uniformity has taken it’s cycle and it’s not going to work.  So I think that we should eliminate that.”

This was the same point of view stated by sign makers from Majestic Signs, Kunath Signs, and many others who have appeared at numerous appeals over the years, who also volunteered their time to appear before the zoning subcommittee, offering suggestions as to changes which would make our internal processes better for the Township and residents.

There has not been a single sign rejected for uniformity in all the years I have sat on the Planning Board2. But, if you want to open a business in Teaneck and the rest of the signs on a building are a little wider or even use a different color lettering, you can’t have your own pick of how your sign would look without a waiver request and an appeal. The code (as is) simply requires you be denied and file a costly appeal.

Here are the types of signs that have come before the Planning Board in just the last year, which would not have needed an appeal, but for the uniformity ordinance:

 

Each of these required a payment for an appeal, experts and owners to come down to the Planning Board with sketches, possibly a sign maker and perhaps even legal counsel (all of which costs additional money).  Every single one passed.

This particular requirement has affected business decisions regarding locations.  Some of those picking between two towns have stated they have chosen to forgo Teaneck, opting to open in another town because the surrounding localities do not have such regulations.

For those keeping score, here’s the breakdown:

People in favor of removing uniformity People against
Building Department Staff Jason Castle, Councilman
Dan Melfi, Zoning Official  
Members of the Planning Board  
Joseph Bodner, Planning Board (Chair)  
Keith Kaplan, Planning Board (Vice-Chair)  
Mark Schwartz, Planning Board (council rep),
Councilman
 
Capt. Kenneth Croonquist  
Howard Rose, Planning Board  
Angelae Wilkerson, Planning Board  
Mark Zomick, Planning Board  
Denise Belcher, Planning Board (Alternate)  
Members of Council  
Mohammed Hameeduddin, Mayor  
Elie Katz, Deputy Mayor  
Henry Pruit, Deputy Mayor  
Gervonn Romney-Rice (Councilwoman)  
Alan Sohn, Councilman  

(It is unclear as to why Councilman Castle is the lone standout here, but I have asked him to comment and will update this post if he responds)

I would like to thank the members of the township council, the planning board3, the zoning employees, the sign makers and the residents that have spokes about this issue and enabled this vote to come to fruition. It’s not easy to move city-hall to action, but the boulder has budged.

Stay tuned for an amended ordinance in the near future followed by other needed proposals.  I’m not done.

  1. If you’re not familiar with the story of Lord Chesterton’s Fence, I suggest you give it a read.  Often attributed to JFK, the original comes from here:

    In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

  2. I am writing in my private capacity as a resident, not as a member of any board and commission
  3. On July 27th, the Planning Board voted unanimously on a resolution to rescind the uniformity requirement and I commend the Council for taking the next step.  I hope the Council will follow suit and remove this so we can move on to other needed changes.
 

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