Apple Valley considers restrictions on all signs
- Article by: JIM ADAMS
- Star Tribune
- October 15, 2011 - 9:21 PM
After seeing billboard-size election signs sprout at a prominent Cedar Avenue corner last fall, Apple Valley officials have proposed forbidding all signs from rights of way to improve aesthetics and driver sightlines.
The local chamber of commerce calls it overkill for a situation that only surfaces in election years. Realtors, who erect weekend open-house signs, and home sellers would be hurt by a sign ban, especially in a difficult economy, said Apple Valley chamber President Ed Kearney.
"I can't understand why [open-house signs] would be upsetting to the council," echoed Richard Tucker, president-elect of the St. Paul Area Association of Realtors.
"Nobody wants to see a blight of signs, but not allowing Realtors to put up open-house signs ... makes no sense at all."
At least two other cities note that they allow election signs in the right of way to comply with a state law aimed at protecting free speech.
Lakeville, however, is an example of a city that forbids all signs in the right of way, said Administrator Steve Mielke. However, he said, he will review the state law. "We have to be cautious that we are not impacting the First Amendment," he said.
Legal advice to Apple Valley has been that signs must be treated equally, so, if campaign signs are banned from the right of way, all signs must go, said Bruce Nordquist, community development director.
State law says campaign signs must be allowed 46 days before a primary and 100 days before a general election. The law doesn't specify that public right of way is exempt from that, so Minnetonka allows only campaign signs in its right of way, said City Attorney Desyl Peterson.
"We believe in freedom of speech," said Apple Valley Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland. "But when there is a lot of it and signs blow over because of the wind [and] they blow into the streets ... there are some safety considerations and that is our No. 1 priority."
Apple Valley officials met with chamber members on Wednesday to answer questions about the proposal. Hamann-Roland said the issue was pulled from the City Council's Thursday meeting agenda to give businesses more time to comment.
"We will explore what is possible," Hamann-Roland said. "This is a challenging economy. We want to make sure we have balance." She said the City Council has discussed the idea for several years.
She said an onslaught of political signs last fall, including her own, caught the city's attention -- although she noted that hers were only about a 3-foot-diameter circle. The size of other signs was what grabbed the mayor's eye.
"There were four giant signs at 140th and Cedar. They went over the top. It was like having a billboard, and we don't allow billboards in Apple Valley."
She said another concern is that rebar supporting big signs could puncture utility lines near the surface of the ground.
Lakeville's ordinance doesn't allow any signs in the right of way -- but enforcing that is another matter, Mielke said.
"Political signs are always a problem," Mielke said.
He said enforcement is complaint-based, but the city's building code official was cut for budget reasons in 2008. Community service officers now respond to complaints about signs, he said. Lakeville doesn't remove the Parade of Homes signs posted all over town a few times a year, he said.
After checking on sign enforcement elsewhere, Lakeville found that "Most cities leave them alone. That doesn't make them legal," Mielke said. "We don't have the staff to enforce every sign that goes up."
Ticketing offenders would be even more time consuming because it's not always clear how wide the right of way is or where it ends, he said.
Elsewhere, Farmington revised its sign ordinance in 2003 to allow only political signs in the right of way, said City Planner Lee Smick. She said the ordinance cites the state law on when campaign signs are allowed.
The city also allows signs for civic events on public or private land, said Smick, who is among a few city workers who remove illegal signs.
Minnetonka forbids commercial signs in the right of way but allows them on private property, with permission, if they are five feet back from the street edge, Peterson said. The courts have recognized that cities "can be more restrictive with commercial signs" than with political, opinion signs.
Cities can't regulate signs based on content, but they can regulate non-political signs based on size, placement and manner, such as electronic signs, she said.
"Signs are such a knotty problem with all the First Amendment issues," Peterson said. "It's a hornets' nest."
Jim Adams • 952-746-3283
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