Basic Aldi storefront architecture. courtesy aldi.us.
By Jason Emerson
With only three weeks to go before Aldi’s scheduled grand opening of its new Cazenovia store, the village zoning board of appeals Monday night rejected the grocery chain’s request to have two signs on its new store, rather than the one sign allowed under the village code.
While the ZBA did approve variances for Aldi to have one sign of larger size and at a higher height than the zoning code allows normally, the rejected second sign could be the beginning of a larger issue — such as delaying the opening date of the store or even undermining the project completely.
Aldi’s developers claim the signage process was confusing — specifically because the village Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) told Aldi they can and should have two signs; the store is already built with space reserved for two signs, one facing Route 20 and one facing the parking lot; and the company has maintained for two months that less than two signs is unacceptable — and nobody knows how the main Aldi office will react to the ZBA denial.
According to both the developer, Sphere Development LLC, and ZBA Chair Phil Byrnes, Aldi could now go forward with one sign, walk away from the project completely and leave an empty building half-done on Route 20 or begin litigation over the ZBA decision.
“It’s all up to Aldi now; I have no idea how they will feel,” said Greg Widrick, a partner in Sphere.
Byrnes agreed. “I honestly don’t know what effect this will have on the project … we asked them if they had a feasible alternative to having two signs, and they said that was not on the table,” Byrnes said.
While the Aldi project was approved in 2016 and construction begun in mid-2017, the issue over Aldi’s proposal to have two signs (one on the street side of its Route 20 store and one facing the parking lot) only surfaced two months ago. Village Codes Enforcement Officer Bill Carr said that Aldi started construction and prepared places for two signs on its building without ever applying for a sign permit. Once this was brought to the company’s attention and an application made, it was denied on the grounds that having two signs of the sizes proposed was not in conformance with the village zoning code.
Aldi wanted two signs, each 9.5 feet tall (75 square feet total) and 24 feet from the ground to the top of the sign. The village zoning code allows businesses to have one sign, a maximum of 2 feet high (75 square feet total) and 20 feet from the ground to the top of the sign.
Aldi applied to the ZBA for three separate variances to allow an extra sign, extra height of the sign and extra height from the ground to the top of the sign.
Sphere Development officials have appeared before the village ZBA in October and November. In November, Aldi proposed smaller signs for the building — 6 feet tall (42 square feet total) — but still wanted two signs.
Widrick said during both meetings that their original proposal did have only one sign on the building, but the village HPC told them to “square off” the building, which would necessitate two signs to make the business identification visible from two directions rather than one — and the HPC said they needed two signs, Widrick said.
The HPC played only an advisory capacity in the Aldi project, and their suggestion — or direction — on this issue was not an approval, which needed to be given by the village planning board, Byrnes said. In fact, he said, this issue should have been raised and brought before the ZBA long ago.
“Why this came to us at the last minute is beyond me — it should have come to us months ago … it’s not good,” Byrnes said.
Widrick agreed, and said Sphere and Aldi should have been notified of the need to apply for a code variance from the ZBA a long time ago. “Why wasn’t this brought to our attention before?” he said. “Don’t punish us [for a confusing process and municipal oversight].”
Byrnes and the rest of the board agreed that while part of the sign variance issue was of Aldi’s own making by having signs that they knew far exceeded the zoning code limits, part of this may have been caused by a confused process and the unclear role of the HPC.
Mayor Kurt Wheeler sent a letter to the ZBA concerning the Aldi sign issue, in which he offered a mea culpa, stating, “In our desire to be as thorough and inclusive as possible in our review and analysis of the overall application for the project, the process may have created confusion or uncertainty. As the applicant weighed input from not only the Village Board and Planning Board, but also the HPC, CACC and others, there may have been times when we had ‘too many cooks in the kitchen.’ We will certainly try to alleviate that during future processes.”
“In this instance, conversations about the desired aesthetics of the building’s façade and presentation of the desired signs on plans and elevations that were not part of the sign approval process may have created legitimate confusion,” Wheeler wrote. “As you weigh the applicant’s request, please note those circumstances and the role they may have played in the final design that is presented.”
After evaluating all three variance requests from Aldi, the ZBA unanimously agreed that allowing the grocery store to have one sign at the originally proposed height of 9 feet, and 24 feet from the ground to the top of the sign would not create a negative impact on the neighborhood. However, they also unanimously agreed that allowing a second sign would produce an undesirable change in the neighborhood, it would be out of character in the neighborhood and it would set a precedent with a potentially negative trend in the village.
They also agreed that the lack of a second business identification sign would not prevent people from understanding where or what the store was, as was argued by the company.
Widrick said his company will now notify Aldi officials of the ZBA decision and see where they want to go from here.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.
Dec 14, 2017