Old Lyme church signs run afoul of historic district rules
Old Lyme — For a little more than a year, The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme has displayed signs for periods of time that its senior minister said represent a "call for action."
The signs include ones that say: "We Affirm: Muslims/People of Color/Immigrants & Refugees/the LGBTQ community, the Disabled, Women & Children, Jews, the environment/Taught by our faith, we stand firm/You are our family."
But displaying signs for more than 30 days is a violation of the rules for signage in the town's Historic District. The Historic District Commission has asked the church, on the corner of Ferry and McCurdy Roads, to abide by the historic district's rules.
"Since the church is in the Historic District the HDC has notified the church that any signs or banners displayed for more than 30 days are in violation of the Historic District's sign policy because they are not considered temporary, but permanent, and require a Certificate of Appropriateness," Historic District Chairman John Pfeiffer wrote in a letter to the Board of Selectmen last month. "The church has always complied with our requests to remove the signs and banners, but it is an ongoing concern."
The Rev. Steven Jungkeit, senior minister at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, said he sent a letter to the Historic District Commission to make it clear that there are signs everywhere in the town of Old Lyme, and one more set of signs reminding people of "our obligation to our neighbors," shouldn't be a "cause for alarm," but a "call for action."
Jungkeit said the church originally left the signs up for several months but removed them after the HDC asked. The church then put the signs back for short periods of time before removing them and putting up different sets of signs, including banners on windows on the side of the Meeting House that said "We Stand Against Hatred, or "Let Love Rule."
The church later removed them and then over the summer put up a rainbow flag and signs made by Sunday School students that contained messages such as "Our Sanctuary is Your Sanctuary." Jungkeit said the church removed the signs after being requested to do so but decided to send a letter to the HDC.
"We're doing our best to be a sign to the most vulnerable among us that we are a trustworthy community," Jungkeit wrote in part of the letter. "We're using every means at our disposal to communicate that we can be trusted to help. Rather than sending us letters, my fond hope is that the town of Old Lyme would join us in that project. My wish is that it wouldn't be left to the churches alone to send a strong moral signal right now, but that our local officials and residents alike would find ways to broadcast loud and far that Old Lyme stands ready to do whatever it can to help those who need it most right now."
Pfeiffer said the HDC discussed the "very thoughtful" letter at its October meeting and "felt that the issue should be addressed as a community effort and would like the Board of Selectmen to consider the matter," he wrote in the letter to the Board of Selectmen.
Jungkeit said the signs were a way of announcing the church's outreach work, including welcoming Syrian refugees and a family from Puerto Rico displaced by hurricanes and offering sanctuary to an individual facing deportation, who was given a stay.
"My intention was really just to signal to everybody in the community and outside the community that these are our values right now and nothing about our political climate is going to change that," Jungkeit said in a phone interview. "We are who we are."
Pfeiffer said in an email that the Historic District Commission was told by the State Historic Preservation Office that it does not have jurisdiction over enforcing signage in the town, so it is an issue that the Board of Selectmen and Zoning Commission would need to address. He added that the commission indicated that it strongly appreciated the church's position of posting socially responsible messages.
The commission recommended that the Board of Selectmen discuss the issue of socially responsible signage and hopefully come up with a solution.
Last Monday, the Board of Selectmen discussed the letters from Jungkeit and Pfeiffer and decided to recommend that the Historic District Commission review its policies for signage and consider updating their policies, possibly exempting churches.
At Monday's Board of Selectmen meeting, First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said she could see both sides of the issue.
"I understand what the Historic District is trying to do, but I also understand what the First Congregational Church is trying to do, which I think all churches try to do," she said. "I think churches try to be a moral compass."
She said that perhaps the town could help the church with displaying signs in a way that fits with the aesthetics of the historic district, but she said the church is being a "moral compass for what is going on in this world," where people in great need are being rejected.
"My heart really is soft to that. I think we should be careful, but also willing to help people," she said. She added that the town already helps people through its social services department.
Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal said she recommended that the Historic District Commission review and update its policies.
Selectman Chris Kerr said he didn't have a problem with recommending that the commission review its policies but said the Board of Selectmen shouldn't make a decision for the commission, because it's more of a zoning and historic district issue.
Pfeiffer said the Historic District Commission will next meet on Jan. 8 and if the commission's secretary receives the letter from the Board of Selectmen by then, the item will be placed on the agenda under communications.
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