Town puts off action on political sign law

Posted on Monday, December 23, 2013 at 4:33 pm

If you’ve forgotten to take down political signs from the last election, chances are no one from town is going to make you.

Ashland Town Council has yet to settle on wording to replace its unenforceable political sign ordinance, which officials said was in conflict with federal and state laws. Dec. 17, council deferred the proposed ordinance change after failing to settle on how to best juggle first amendment protections with practical zoning measures.

The issue came to council’s attention after a citizen pointed out that a number of political signs were on display – some of which in town council members’ yards – before the permitted 30-day timespan preceding an election.

Political signs were previously classified as temporary signs. The proposed change got rid of time restraints, but still limited political signs on residential lots to a total of four square feet and only one sign per candidate.

Vice mayor George Spagna pointed out that the square-footage threshold per lot effectively limits the number of candidates residents would be able to support during an election. Most signs are approximately two square-feet in size, and citizens would reach that threshold after installing two signs for different candidates.

“You can put a limit on the square footage of each sign, but I don’t think we should go out and limit the overall square footage that [citizens] can display in their front yard,” Spagna said, adding that citizens may want to voice their support for multiple state, local and federal candidates during a general election.

No citizens spoke for or against the proposed change during the public hearing, but the issue drew much discussion from town council. At issue was sign size and quantity as well as what qualifies as a “political” sign.

Proposed language defined a political sign as one “designed for the purpose of supporting or opposing a candidate, proposition or other measure at an election.” Councilman Steve Trivett requested expanding the definition of a political sign so that it covers political expression of a non-election related issue.

“I know when we think of campaign signs, we think of signs that are put out because there’s a campaign. But there’s also times when people will put a sign out that says ‘I disagree with Senator John Doe and I’m going to stick this in my yard and I’m going to leave it until it falls down,’” Trivett said.

Town Attorney Andrea Erard said it would come down to a zoning administrator’s interpretation on where a sign fell under the town’s ordinance, but noted that “the definition of a political sign is pretty clearly a candidate sign versus a sign making a political statement.”

Those types of signs would fall within the town’s ordinance for normal signs, Erard added. But size and number of election-time signs still posed their own dilemma.

“I think size becomes an issue of safety a lot of times because of traffic obstruction and those kinds of things,” said Mayor Faye Prichard. “But, honestly, I hope if you live next door to me that you don’t put 14 signs in your yard, but if you want to, I think you should have the right to.”

However, some council members still said setting sign limits might be a good idea. Trivett pointed out that in a case where someone installs numerous signs pertaining to a single issue.

“That could be an annoyance…I think a limit is probably a good idea,” he said.

Some members of council backed limiting sign sizes to four square feet and not allowing more than one per candidate or issue. But Erard said while placing size limits on individual signs is reasonable, limiting signs by candidate versus total area effectively censors free speech.

“You’re regulating it based on the content of the sign,” Erard said. “If I can have a sign for the president, a sign for the governor, and a sign for town council, but I just want to have three signs for town council, you can’t tell me which sign I can pick; you can just tell me how many signs, what size they can be, where they can be located, and what material they can be made out of.”

The deferral allows time for town staff to rework the ordinance change to reflect some of those issues. The next election is not until this spring, when two seats on town council will be on the ballot.

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