Posted by: Patricia Salkin | May 4, 2017

MO Appeals Court Finds Board Abused Its Discretion in Denying Church’s Variance Request for a Digital Sign

The Kansas City, Missouri, Board of Zoning Adjustment appealed a Clay County Circuit Court judgment finding that it abused its discretion in failing to grant Antioch Community Church a variance from the city’s sign ordinance. The Church contended that the Board abused its discretion because the evidence demonstrated practical difficulties if the Church were required to remove the digital component of its sign, and that the requested variance was insubstantial. In the alternative, the Church alleged that the Board violated its First Amendment rights by favoring less-protected commercial speech over more-protected non-commercial speech in applying the city’s sign ordinance.

According to the Church, the un-contradicted evidence before the Board established that the church faced practical difficulties in conveying its messages to the community without a digital display and “the requested variance was insubstantial, would not change the neighborhood, was the only feasible alternative, and was in the interest of justice.” The record indicated that before the Church altered the sign in 2010, it was a monument sign. After the Church altered the sign, it remained a monument sign by definition, albeit with a digital display. The court found that because the Board had discretion to grant variances as to sign “requirements,” and the digital display prohibition applying to churches in residential zones was simply a sign “requirement,” the Board had the authority to grant the Church a variance from the prohibition on “any form of digital or electronic display.”

The court found that the new sign at issue, which retained the code-compliant exterior framework, allowed the church to “greatly increase the number of messages it could share with the community” and made “it easier (and safer) for passing motorists to read the new larger messages.” The record reflected that the Church was located on a busy roadway in the middle of considerable commercial development. Thus, its sign did not substantially change the character of the neighborhood, and there was no evidence introduced to show a substantial detriment to neighboring properties. As to the feasibility of an alternative method, the Church contended that it lacked a non-sign means of communicating the messages it posts on its signs. The court found that other means of advertising or communication, such as fliers or paid advertisements, would not be as effective as a sign in front of the Church. Accordingly, the court held that the Board abused its discretion in denying Church’s variance request. Accordingly, the court reversed the Board’s decision and affirmed the circuit court’s judgment.

Antioch Community Church v Board of Zoning Adjustment of the City of Kansas City, 2017 WL 7209821 (WD MO 4/4/2017)

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