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Letter to the Editor: Current Political Sign Regulations Poorly Drafted

This letter writer has advocated for changes to the political sign size limitations, he writes.

 

To the Editor:

When it comes to the Town Of Woodbury’s regulation of signs, including signs defined in the regulations as “Political Signs”, much has been said but little has been agreed.

The Woodbury Zoning Commission (WZC) has been bombarded over the past couple of years with allegations that Political Sign regulations violate both state and federal constitutions as these apply to free speech. The WZC itself still appears to be split on the issue, despite our own attorney’s attendance before us and his diplomatic but firm assurance that while the existing 7.5.10 regulation would likely be unconstitutional (for reasons of discrimination, NOT free speech) the suggested wording rejected by the commission on two occasions is not unconstitutional by any clear test.

At the WCZ regular meeting September 11th, an attorney who has appeared before us on other occasions concerning the same subject responded to questions from Alternate Murphy and me, about case law in Connecticut pertaining to signs and free speech. Her response was that the Sec 5 of the Connecticut Constitution states that, “No law shall ever be passed to curtail or restrain the liberty of speech or of the press”, and absent any guiding case law on the subject only a plain wording interpretation of this section is applicable to the Woodbury regulations.

However there appears that case law very prominently exists and I would like to bring it to the attention of all parties. In Groton Long Point, Donna Kroll placed a twenty square foot piece of plywood with the words “Who asked the Deer?” to protest a proposed ordinance allowing deer hunting. ZEO Steere proceeded to enforce the regulation allowing only one sign of no larger than one square foot. In Kroll v Steere the Connecticut Superior Court found that the regulation and its enforcement was not a violation of Kroll’s First Amendment rights.

Upon appeal, the Connecticut Appellate Court ruled unequivocally that a zoning regulation which referred to the size of sign and  “...makes no attempt to regulate the content of residential signs" therefore "… did not infringe on the plaintiff’s constitutional right of freedom of speech”. 

Thus, while I am not a lawyer, it appears the prevailing Connecticut case law on the subject (1) follows the US Supreme Court decisions and (2) found that the size of signs, even political signs, can be regulated by a town, under the US Constitution, the Connecticut Constitution and the laws of the State of Connecticut.

That’s not to say that the current regulation governing political signs is well drafted. To the contrary, I have advocated changes to the size limitation (as being unfairly too small) and the language that may be construed as discriminatory, contained in the amendment to this regulation that our attorneys help us to write but that the WZC rejected last fall. I continue to believe that this is a better approach to addressing the valid claims of some and also in the best interests of the Town than repeal, by far.

As a personal aside I am disappointed that it appears that an attorney, weighing in several times to a municipal Zoning Commission struggling to do the right thing, in a dispute over enforcement would either not know of or deny the existence of a ruling which quite clearly and in very similar factual circumstance, appears to hold against the very position she advocates.

Martin Overton, Chairman, Woodbury Zoning Commission

Editor's Note: Letter writer Martin Overton stated in an e-mail that the opinions expressed in his letter are his alone and not that of the Zoning Commission.

tom arras September 18, 2012 at 02:34 PM
I have resided in Woodbury since the '70's, and large political signs have been a standard in many local issues throughout the entire time I've lived here. I myself have displayed signs both large & small since the early '80's. This is longer than Martin Overton has been in the United States. Most amazing to me in this issue besides the effort of Martin et al to buck the CT Constitution, is that Martin had more signage displayed at his campaign headquarters last year than what he has been trying to persecute me for displaying. Why is it OK for Martin Overton to ignore the very regulation that he tries to force upon others? Why is it alright for Martin to pursue his efforts to remove my sign when he apparently judged the regulation not to apply to himself? This entire issue began as a partisan attempt to eliminate Martha Dean signs on 2 lawns. Martin has been discriminatory in his enforcement efforts while blatantly ignoring the regulation himself. He cannot possibly offer an impartial approach on attempting to enforce a regulation that he considered himself above when he violated it himself. He should have recused himself from all discussions on this matter from day one. Martin Overton is an embarrassment to the community and he should resign.
Sean M September 18, 2012 at 02:40 PM
I have attached yet again the two legal opinions on political signs. Here are a few things to keep in mind. 1. The November 9, 2010 stated that when a town regulates political signs it cannot restrict more than political. (This did not address whether the town should regulate political signs). The current regulations do restrict political more than commercial. 2. The proposed changes that Martin wrote with the former Planner Catherine Adsitt did not address the issues the attorney wrote. These were written without including the entire commission and were voted down because of this action by Overton. Here is the link to the proposed changes that were voted down in January 2012. http://woodburyct.org/DRAFT%20proposed%20Zoning%20Regs%202011.pdf Note that the concerns from the November 9, 2010 opinion were not addressed. 3. The Zoning Commission held a workshop on July 31, 2012 and drafted proposed changes to the regulations. These regulations leave in more signage allowed for contractor signs than the current allotment for political. "Construction/Repair Signs: One non-illuminated, provisional sign for each contractor, each sign not to exceed four square feet, provided that it is removed upon the completion of the work. The completion of the work shall be determined upon announcement by the contractor that the work is complete, and/or the submission of an invoice requesting payment in full which indicates all such work is complete."
Sean M September 18, 2012 at 02:45 PM
Since the commission decided that there should be no limit on aggregate signage for contractor signage, if it did not remove the restrictions on political signs, it would have again flagrantly violated legal opinions by the town attorney. 4. The discussion as to whether to regulate political signs at all is a separate issue from the one currently in front of the zoning commission. You can read the June 14, 2011 legal opinion, and focus on the section about the attorney suggesting Zoning look at the Mansfield example, which was to remove restrictions on political signs in individual size and aggregate size. Please read all the documentation for yourself. I have published it on this page. This really makes me wonder why Martin Overton wrote changes behind the back of the zoning commission and withheld legal opinions discussing these proposed changes. It is starting to become quite clear that Martin Overton is steering zoning to his personal agenda, which is not the role of a chairman.
Voice of Reason September 18, 2012 at 10:21 PM
Thank you for the clarification regarding the fact that Mr Overton was not speaking for the Commission with his letter, the Editor's Note supports your claim. Being that Mr Overton signed the letter in a way that one would expect an official acting in that capacity to do so and the fact that Mr Overton added his "personal aside" in his closing paragraph it left one with the impression that Mr Overton was in fact representing the Commission with this letter.
Sean M September 18, 2012 at 11:56 PM
The fact that Martin Overton would put something like this out there is completely unacceptable. He has tried repeatedly to steer the votes of the Zoning Commission with misrepresentations, telling the commission things that are not true, and pushing his agenda. Just see the recent meeting as yet another example. Overton has cost the town of Woodbury A LOT of money already. He is going to get the town sued and the town is going to lose big. Overton has twice abused his position as chairman to demand Tom Arras take his sign down. The Commission has never voted as to whether his sign is in violation, which is another problem. Overton has not recused himself on the enforcement of Arras more than once. Yet another abuse. I can go on for a long time on out of line behavior by Overton.

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