Political Signs

Dear Management Doctor:

I was wondering if anybody there (or anybody out there) has any information on political sign enforcement. We have an ordinance that prohibits display of signs prior to 30 days before an election. Further, it regulates the size of signs (five square feet per 10,000 square feet or fraction thereof of lot area) and the number you can have (one sign per candidate per street frontage). I have been doing this job for 13 years now and this year has been the worst as far as violations.

I have been doing a little research and have found that courts may take a strict view on this and might strike down laws that have such prohibitions. However, I have not found any consenus on that.

Do you or anyone out there have any information on this issue?

Frank B. Hill
University City, MO

Dear Frank,

You are opening a political can of worms. It has been many years since I have dealt with signs so will have to rely on our readers to help you out. During my career I've never had much luck with this topic and tended to ignore it. Unless your boss is after you on this, I suggest you do the same. I can also speculate that the "one sign per candidate per street frontage" is likely to run into a constitutional problem.

Many years ago when I ran for office, I had a different problem. The County didn't have to worry about getting my signs down, my opponent and his supporters did a good job of removing them. Unfortunately, this was before the election. I had one great location on a friends property which was a prize site facing the freeway. This sign never lasted more than a day at the most. One night after a campaign rally, I decided to park my car where I could see the sign and see if I could catch the culprit. After about two hours, I gave up. As I drove away I was pulled over by the police since someone had reported me as a suspicious person. Who knows, maybe it was the same people who continued to remove my signs.

All right you readers, help us out.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

Wow, it must be the political time of year. Obviously I am out of date on this topic. By the way, I ran against the Chairman of Marin County, California Board of Supervisors in 1970. It is an interesting story, which is on Page 108 of my book, What Your Planning Professors Forgot To Tell You.

The Management Doctor

Very cute. When did you run for political office and what did you run for? In accord with the majority view, the Illinois Supreme Court prohibits restrictions on political signs. Probably the same in most other states, although I'm sure there is a minority view somewhere. But I'd think the US Constitution would be decisive here.

Daniel Lauber, Planner/Attorney
River Forest, IL

My advice is to check state law carefully. Many states (mine included, Minnesota) have laws that pre-empt municipal control on campaign signs.

Anne Hurlburt
Plymouth, MN

We allow political signs up to 60 days in advance and they must be removed within 10 days after the election. Their size can be up to 32 sq. ft. in non- residential areas. We have had no problems with compliance except recently there have been campaigns painted on houses which is illegal. Since code enforcement notice requires 10 days notice, there is little we can do if they paint it nine days before the election. Otherwise it has worked well for us.

Larry Frey, AICP
City of Bradenton, FL

The State of Virginia, effective July 1, 2004, adopted a new law with regard to political signs. Local governments are now prohibited from placing restrictions on political campaign signs on private property. The law is as follows:

Code of Virginia 15.2-109. Regulations on political campaign signs.
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 nonpolitical signs, if the signs have been posted with the permission of the owner. The provisions of this section shall supersede the provisions of any local ordinance or regulation in conflict with this section.

Vadah "Hooper" Barney-McCann
Town of Hamilton, VA

In Texas, the State legislature answered this question for all municipalities. During their last session, they simply exempted all political signs from local zoning regulations! They just didn't want any problems in getting re-elected, don't you know.

Jim Compton, Senior Planner
City of Midland, TX

We just went through a revision to our sign ordinance where we had to deal with this issue. Our attorneys stated that the restriction on number of signs, placement (other than in a public right-of-way or public property), size, and time up before the election would not hold up in court. Further more, if the council approved a time limit they could be held personally liable for any legal actions against them and/or the city. We revised our ordinance to simply state political signs can be placed on private property with owners consent and must come down within 10 days after the election. If we must take them down after the election we charge a fee per sign. As a courtesy, we do notify the candidate when their signs are pulled from a public street to let them come and retrieve it. Also, at the end of the filing time I do send a letter to the candidates letting them know of the regulations and where to retrieve signs. We have done this for two elections now and it seems to be a better solution than in the past.

Peggy Temple, Planning Director
City of Corona, CA

This is probably the one time I'm going to disagree with my learned friend Paul Zucker. I don't think you can ignore the issue of political signs; there is so much pressure from citizens over the removal of them after elections. The county for which I work currently has no regulations for political signs and our department is getting beat up over the lack of such regulations. Let me suggest, though, that an ordinance needs to differentiate between political signs and election signs. The former are defined as expressions of free speech. For example, a sign that states "throw the bums out" is an expression of free speech and defined as a political sign. Our new regulations will address size, location and number, but will not address the length of time that they can remain on a property (as long as they don't pose a safety threat). The same sign that states "throw the bums out" but also adds the statement "and I'm Alfred E. Neumann and I'm running for XYC" is an election sign. In this case, our new regulations will identify a time period for which the sign can be erected as well as location, size and number. Regulating election signs addresses the usual concern of citizens that these types of signs seem to never be removed, especially by those candidates who are unsuccessful. Of course, in both instances, content cannot be regulated. Nevertheless, no regulation is going to be successful unless an enforcement program is consistently pursued and supported. Mr. Hill may want to first explore whether there is still interest in enforcing the code provisions by his elected body.

By the way, our proposed regulations have been developed by a consultant who is also a lawyer and did extensive research on federal court cases. I hope this helps. And Paul, unfortunately your experience continues to be repeated in this election year.

Michael A. Harper, FAICP
Washoe County Department of Community Development, NV

In response to Frank B. Hill's inquiry about regulating political signs, The City of Anaheim informs all potential political candidates of the following:

  1. All signs must be on private property.
  2. The City suggests that a candidate obtain permission form the property owner prior to placement of political signs.
  3. All signs shall comply with sight distance requirements to prevent pedestrian/vehicular view obstruction.
  4. Any sign greater than 32 sq. ft. shall be submitted for Planning and Building review prior to installation.
  5. Any sign which exceeds 8 feet in height shall be submitted for Planning and Building review prior to installation. Said signs may require permits when new construction is involved.
  6. Any sign that has more than two posts shall be submitted for Planning and Building review prior to installation. Said signs may require permits.
  7. Temporary banners on private property do not require Planning or Building review.
  8. Any sign may be subject to review if the Planning Director or designee determines the sign may present a potential hazard. The Zoning Code prohibits signs that are a danger to the public or are unsafe, and signs that cause a potential traffic hazard or obstruct the view of any authorized traffic sign, signal or other such device. If determined necessary, applicable permits shall be obtained and applicable fees paid.
  9. No review shall be required to change the copy on any existing legally permitted sign.
  10. Signs are considered temporary political signs provided they are removed within 120 days of their placement or within 30 days after the election to which they relate.

Greg Hastings
City of Anaheim, CA

I read Frank Hill's problem with political signs. My personal feeling is that we should be celebrating the ability to exercise democracy and consequently have no rules impinging on that celebration. Nonetheless, it does have a tendency to get out of hand if not regulated at all. Most of the problems I see are signs that are posted on traffic control devices and signs that are left up for weeks and months after an election.

I made the mistake once, and only once, of demanding that an oversized sign be removed and found myself on the front page of the local newspaper. My future county supervisor, whose sign I was ordering to be removed, was not amused. Consequently, I have simply sent a form letter to the county clerk to attach to the candidate's package. It states the political sign ordinances and tells them that if complaints are received they will be forwarded to their campaign offices to deal with. Seems to work pretty well.

Art Trinidade
San Luis Obispo County, CA

A discussion of the constitutional issues by Professor Daniel R. Mandelker of Washington University in St. Louis is available online at law.wustl.edu. Washington University is in University City's backyard. One of the Supreme Court cases cited is "Ladue vs. Gilleo" from Ladue, Missouri which is also nearby.

We have had discussions about sign regulations in our "Effective Zoning Administration Techniques" continuing education courses. William J. Kearns of Kearns Vassalo, Guest and Kearns in Willingboro, New Jersey spoke on sign regulation at our 2003 course. In general, a sign ordinance should be content-neutral. Within a particular zone, you should not have limits on political signs that are more stringent than you would have for other temporary signs such as a grand opening banner, a garage sale sign, a real estate sign, or a stork yard sign that announces the arrival of a new baby. One approach would be to have an ordinance for temporary signs that does not break temporary signs down into content-based categories, but rather treats all temporary signs the same within a particular zone. An example of this approach is this ordinance from The Town of Camden, Maine (click here to view). (I chose this as an example because I was able to locate it on the web. There are others that take this approach.)

If you continue to describe your temporary sign types based on content, consider allowing the same size, number and duration for the different types. For example, don't allow 4 sq. ft. for a political sign while allowing 6 sq. ft. for a real estate sign.

I would also think that limiting to one sign per candidate could put you on thin ice, but there are many ordinances out there that take that approach. The Massachusetts Attorney General has issued a legal opinion that is not constitutional (click here) but, I could not find any case law or any other guidance on this issue. However, it seems that you would be on firmer ground with a restriction on the total number of signs per property that applied to all types of temporary signs within a zone.

There is also some question about limiting when and how long the political signs can be erected. A discussion of this issue by Jules B. Gerard, Professor of Law Emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis is available at law.wustl.edu.

There are State Attorney Generals' opinions from Iowa, New York and Hawaii that find that these time restrictions are likely to be found unconstitutional (Click here for Iowa, click on opinions and search for "Whitton") (Click here for New York) (Click here for Hawaii).

The opinions cite Whitton vs. City of Gladstone, Missouri the 8th Circuit Court (Gladstone is quite a bit further from University City. It is in the Kansas City area). However, I do not have information on the specifics of the case.

Also, the State Supreme Court in Ohio has found overly restrictive time limits to be unconstitutional (Click here to view).

My best advice would be to become familiar with the issues and cases and have a discussion with your city attorney.

Benjamin J. Jordan, P.E.
University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI

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