Flap over drive-in sign shows Portage’s passion a real misdeal

It’s nearly impossible for many communities to attract more than a handful of residents to public meetings and hearings, even those sessions dealing with projects involving big sums of money.

In many instances, not even one resident shows up to listen, express an opinion or offer a suggestion, even when the weather is conducive to attendance.

But the Portage Township supervisors no doubt will remember Jan. 6, 2014, for a reason other than below-zero temperatures, dangerous wind-chills and bad driving conditions that kept thousands of people in Cambria County and throughout the rest of western and central Pennsylvania indoors.

On that evening when people were being urged to savor the warmth of their homes and not to venture outside into the arctic conditions, about 50 township residents refused to heed that advice and instead packed into the supervisors’ meeting room – regarding an issue that wouldn’t have attracted many people’s interest elsewhere, even during balmy weather conditions.

The issue was whether the Bar-Ann Drive-In’s sign, long situated in the center of a township right-of-way, should be allowed to remain there. The supervisors have decided that the longtime sign is a driving hazard, municipal liability and, in the opinion of Supervisor Richard Olshavsky, a nuisance.

Apparently the sign is the hottest issue to encompass the municipality in a long time – and even on the coldest meeting night in many years, some tempers seemed capable of warming the frigid conditions outside.

The public interest on Monday night was prompted by a court hearing scheduled for Jan. 24, at which the supervisors are hoping Bar-Ann’s owners will be ordered to remove the sign, since the supervisors’ efforts up to now have proven unsuccessful. But Monday’s session showed that there is much public support for the sign remaining untouched, that there is skepticism about some of the information the township has presented, and that some important facts might not yet have been aired publicly.

Property owners and tenants are entitled to freedom from nuisances. That’s why it’s important for municipal leaders to remain committed to fairness, regardless in what direction a decision-making process takes them.

Businesses are not entitled to an unfair advantage over people who are impacted by their actions.

Meanwhile, businesses and the benefits to the community that they provide must not be victimized simply because a small number of people one day decide to challenge them and their continued existence based on some trivial grievance.

The one positive outcome of Monday’s deep-freeze session was the intent to schedule a meeting – presumably prior to Jan. 24 – to explore whether a solution is possible that wouldn’t entail removal of the sign, which over the years has been akin to a community landmark.

That meeting should review not only possible solutions to the dispute, but focus honestly on whether “sour grapes” or petty gripes rooted in the past are what have forced this sign dispute to a head at this time.

It’s refreshing when so many people are willing to brave the worst of conditions to join in municipal dialogue.