Officials looking at temporary signs
Political signs advocating for, or against a particular candidate or issue is commonplace during elections locally and throughout the country, but there is a desire to better manage how and where such signs can be placed in Scarborough.
The town’s ordinance committee began to take up the topic this month and will individually devote time between now and the group’s April 6 meeting, to put together a list of “vista views” and other locations and major intersections they would like to see protected from temporary signs.
That list, Town Manager Tom Hall said, would have to be very specific.
“One way or another we will have to be very clear and discrete,” he said.
Placement of political signs became an issue this fall when countless signs were placed, and later stolen, along the Route 1 corridor of Scarborough Marsh
“When you look and see thousands of signs in town for a month, six weeks before elections and all the debris, that really brought it to our attention,” said Ordinance Committee Chairman Bill Donovan March 2, estimating there were 100-plus signs along Scarborough Marsh.
Assistant Town Manager Larissa Crockett said while towns may not be able to regulate the content of temporary signs – political or otherwise – due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Reed vs. Town of Gilbert (Arizona) decision, towns can manage placement of signs.
Crockett has been working with Maine Municipal Association attorneys, which, Crocket said agrees “that as long as the town of Scarborough passes a sign ordinance that is content neutral so that any sort of restrictions you impose are on temporary signs across the board, that there is no problems there, that location is completely defendable for all temporary signs.”
That means all temporary signs, whether they are for a bean supper, local referendum, area Realtor or political candidate will be managed the same.
As a result of the Supreme Court case, the state now requires temporary signs advertising the same message to be at least 30 feet apart in the public right of way. That, Crockett said, is difficult to enforce without going out with a measuring tape. Regulating one sign per right-of-way property unit, she said, could be possible.
“On their own property of course, people may blanket their yard with signs, that’s their person property, but in the right of way you can’t have someone pull over and put down a bunch of signs. That way you aren’t worrying about measurement for enforcement purposes, you are better able to judge, I see a house, lots of land and 20 signs in the right of way, this is a violation,” she said.
Committee member Will Rowan and Donovan said they would favor looking into that. Donovan said he received a lot of comments about the placement of signs during the November election, especially along the marsh and understands that, as a candidate, location of signs is important.
“If there are popular spots on a corner or in the center of town, you want to have as many signs as everybody else, so you end up having a lot of signs there and you are just adding to the problem,” he said.
The goal of any ordinance change that may occur, Donovan said, is to limit the number of temporary signs blanketing the town and keep them away from wetlands where they could pose an environmental risk or a congested intersection where they could be dangerous by distracting motorists.
Donovan said placing temporary signs on street corners and intersections concerns him because they tend to district motorists as they drive by.
Committee member Kate St. Clair is no fan of political signs and would like to see them banned. Campaigns, she said, can be won without signs and would like to see all political signs eliminated, especially in environmental areas such as the marsh or beaches.
“I didn’t use signs, just to be honest. I won my second campaign with just one sign in my front yard,” St. Clair said. “I personally hate signs. I think they are tacky and I think they make our beautiful town look terrible. When you see certain areas of town that are beautiful and you have 50 signs all clumped together, it looks awful.”
Banning just one type of sign, such as just political ones, Crockett said, would violate that Supreme Court decision.
“That would be an infringement on freedom of speech,” she said.
The town can, however, bar temporary signs from ecologically sensitive areas or in front of town-owned public buildings.
“There is very strong precedent for ordinance protecting ecologically and culturally important vistas and areas, so if the town of Scarborough wished to have an extremely stringent ordinance that did not allow any placement of temporary signs whatsoever along the marsh and any other ecologically sensitive or any other enjoyable scenic view areas, that would stand up…to any sort of scrutiny,” Crockett said.
Councilor Katy Foley would like to see signs barred from being placed along the marsh. She said when she ran for council last year she didn’t place any signs near the marsh because during marsh cleanup events she has seen signs from candidates two or three years after they ran that ended up getting blown into the water.
“I’d love to see less signs. I wish signs were not part of the political process, but they are,” she said.
Like many other ordinances on the books, enforcing a new temporary sign ordinance, if approved, would be difficult.
Enforcement of the placement of signs has largely been monitored in the state by the town clerk through election law, but Scarborough, since 1994, has a local ordinance – that for nearly two years has been in violation of the Supreme Court decision and will have to be repealed – that gives police the authority to remove and levy fines for improperly place political signs. It stipulate political signs cannot be placed in the right of way 20 days before an elec- tion and must be removed within 48 hours after the election or referendum vote.
If a new ordinance is established, Hall said enforcement may continue to be under the auspices law enforcement or be done by the code enforcement department. Crockett favors law enforcement because “they are the ones that are out and about,” while Hall said he “respectfully disagrees” and sees code enforcement as the more appropriate enforcement authority.
“Code enforcement does do some enforcement of temporary signs today. I assure you if you go in any of their vehicles there are dozens of signs in the back seat,” he said.
Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at email@example.com