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With the political season in full swing leading up to Election Day, signs endorsing candidates are beginning to dot the landscape.
In Ashland, this is technically illegal.
The issue came to a head Sept. 17 when citizen Hal Baker cried foul at the number of signs being displayed in town, in direct violation of the town’s ordinance. He specifically pointed to language that limits the display of political signs to 30 days before an election and seven days following the polls.
Town Code further allows only one sign per candidate on a residential lot. These cannot exceed four square feet in size. Political signs can reach up to 32 square feet in business or industrial zones.
All signs have to be located a minimum of 10 feet from the property line, have to be confined within private property and cannot encroach into the visibility triangle at street intersections.
By his count, Baker said approximately 54 Ashland homes and businesses are in violation of town law.
“From TV ads to signs, does it seem like we’ve been inundated for years about elections? I know there are many of you fed up, as I am, with this. I’m asking the citizens in Ashland, those of you that have signs up now, please follow our law and reinstall your signs 30 days prior to this and future elections,” Baker said.
He further accused members of Town Council of violating their own law.
“There are presently two members, I believe, of this council who have decided they are above their own law and are and have been displaying signs. Shame on you!” he said.
In response, Mayor Faye Prichard confessed she is one of the members with a political sign in her yard. Following dialog with Baker, she said she checked with the town manager and town attorney and learned that Ashland’s ordinance is unenforceable.
“If it is a concern for any citizen, I will take my sign out of my yard, but I will not ask any other citizen to do that because I do not believe it is constitutional to do so,” Prichard said.
Town Attorney Andrea Erard confirmed this point by reading a section of state code that outlines the Commonwealth’s stance on the issue.
“No locality shall have the authority to prohibit the display of political campaign signs on private property if the signs are in compliance with zoning and right-of-way restrictions applicable to temporary non-political signs,” Erard said.
In Virginia, state law supersedes local statutes.
However, Councilman Steven Trivett urged council to abide by town codes until they’ve been publically disavowed.
“We should abide by whatever ordinances we have until we’ve publically addressed and dismissed the enforceability of the ordinance so that people don’t feel like they’re playing by a certain rule and don’t know that there is no rule until the discussion comes forward,” Trivett said.
Prichard said that the town relies on citizen complaints to enforce most of its codes, pointing out that the town doesn’t have a staff large enough to proactively look for every violation. The issue of political signs had not come up during her 11 years on Town Council.
“When a complaint comes forward, you go back and look into it and you say, ‘You know, as it turns out that thing that’s been around for 40 years might not actually be enforceable,’” Prichard said. “Then, I think it’s our job to clean it up as quickly as we possibly can.”
Councilman James Foley was the other member of council currently displaying a political sign in his yard. He had a simple explanation for why it hadn’t been removed.
“I asked my wife to remove her sign and she said ‘no.’ That was the end of that discussion,” Foley said.