A Northland church has lost its years-long battle to keep its digital sign after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled it violates Kansas City’s zoning laws.
In a unanimous decision Tuesday, the court held that the Board of Zoning Adjustment was right to deny Antioch Community Church a variance, or exception, to the city's sign ordinance. The ordinance generally prohibits digital signs in residential neighborhoods.
“I guess this proves it is tough to beat City Hall,” said Bernie Rhodes, the church’s attorney. “Because ultimately that’s what their decision was – the BZA has discretion and they can do what they want.”
In 2010, the small church had spent more than $11,000 donated by a parishioner’s estate to replace its old, brick “monument” sign in front of the church building with the digital display.
The church contended the digital sign allowed it to increase the number of messages it could display while making them easier and safer for motorists to view. It also said the sign was more convenient because church members no longer had to go outside, open the sign window and replace the letters by hand. The church credited the new display with attracting several new members.
But after someone registered an anonymous complaint about a year after the sign was erected, Kansas City cited the church for violating the sign ordinance. The church then sought a variance from the zoning board, which denied its request. A Clay County judge later ordered the board to grant the variance.
The zoning board appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, which ruled that granting the church a variance would not result in a substantial change to the neighborhood’s character. It ordered the board to grant the variance. The church sits on a four-lane road between Interstate 35 and Vivion Road.
The Missouri Supreme Court’s decision undoes the Missouri Court of Appeals ruling. Writing for the high court, Judge Laura Denvir Stith said that the church had failed to demonstrate it would experience “practical difficulties” — a prerequisite for granting the variance — if it were not granted.
The church had argued that without the digital sign it wouldn’t be able to “meaningfully convey its non-commercial religious messages” because the church’s aging membership found it “extremely difficult” to go outside and manually change the old sign, especially during inclement weather. It also contended that it would experience economic hardship, having spent more than $11,000 for the sign.
But while those reasons might explain why the church found the digital sign preferable and more convenient, Stith wrote, “they do not show practical difficulty in carrying out the Church’s use of the property as a church.”
In 2015, the Kansas City Council approved rules allowing some digital signs on school and church properties with more than 15 acres, or 10 acres on a busy street. The compromise was prompted by a dispute over digital signs installed by the North Kansas City School District.
Antioch Community Church traces its roots to 1853. The original sanctuary was erected in 1859, according to the church’s website, and was in use until 1957. It is now a registered historical site.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.