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It’s Not Easy Being Green
by Ron Davis

Green will be the color of all signs at a West Caldwell, NJ, shopping center named West Caldwell Plaza. Not that green was the choice of owners of that shopping center. They wanted a little color variety, and they therefore challenged a local regulation that specifies the color of shopping center signs in West Caldwell.

Under that regulation, each of the local shopping centers must have signage that is uniform in color. The local planning board had recommended such standards following a recommendation by its specially designated sign committee.

But the standards, while governing sign color, allow different maximum sign heights. For example, at West Caldwell Plaza, signs could be no more than 24 inches in height, but at nearby Essex Mall shopping center, the signs could be as large as 36 inches high. (Essex Mall’s signs are restricted to the color red.)

Local law allows variances in shopping center sign size, but requires that each shopping center observe color dictates. The stated purpose of that law is to “maintain the attractive uniformity of signage in the township shopping centers.”

The owners of West Caldwell Plaza nevertheless sued, seeking to invalidate the signage provisions of local law as being “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.” And they asked the opinion of a professional planner and licensed architect, who said the color requirements violate state law in requiring different colors for commercial signs in the different shopping centers. In response, local government called on the expert opinion of its own professional planner, and he stated that a municipality can create reasonable deviations from uniform requirements of law. In other words, he said, local government has flexibility in applying its own standards.

A New Jersey court agreed with the latter opinion, explaining, “By requiring all signs within a particular shopping center to have the same restrictions on height and color, the local law seeks to create an ‘attractive uniformity’ that is visually pleasing. By distinguishing among the various shopping centers and assigning different height and color restrictions to each, the law seeks to create some level of diversity throughout the district and this too may serve to ‘promote a desirable visual environment.’ The argument that the law is arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable must therefore fail.” (Passfield Properties v. Township of West Caldwell, 2006 WL 3770880 [N.J. Super. A.D.])

Decision: December 2006
Published: January 2007



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