Size, lights, location: Signs need reined in, council says

By Jason Hawk -

Frank Carlson

Frank Carlson

Taming Amherst’s sign laws without stepping on free speech is a task generating discussion by city council.

The ordinance committee debated several updates Monday to the decades-old rules for political signs, yard sale signs, business signs, and even ornamental displays.

On the table were ways to keep light out of neighbors’ homes, regulations for double-sided signs, permit handling, preventing eyesores, and more.

Most of the talk centered on reining in temporary signs.

Assistant law director Frank Carlson said council must avoid empowering the mayor’s office to make judgment calls on which signs are acceptable and which aren’t, calling such a policy “a sure path to a lawsuit.”

Decisions about signs can’t be made based on their content, Carlson said. For example, allowing only some kinds of political or religious signs while barring others would be unconstitutional.

“My proposal is you don’t make that distinction. You just permit them,” he said of all temporary signs, adding that while that may sound scary, it’s better than going to court.

Law director Tony Pecora said city regulations can’t be discretionary. They have to spell out what’s allowed and what is not.

To that end, Carlson introduced what he called common sense rules:

• You must have the consent of the property owner to place a sign.

• Signs can’t obstruct the view of travelers at intersections.

• No temporary signs can be illuminated, have moving parts, or be taller than four feet.

• Sign sizes need to be reasonable. No more than 48 feet of total signs should be erected on a residential property (that’s about eight political signs per yard).

• Torn, waterlogged, or otherwise deteriorated signs need to be taken down.

• There should be time limits on how long temporary signs can stay up (seven days was the proposal).

The city cannot remove signs from private property, but the building inspector can enforce the law through fines. Homeowners, however, can get rid of signs put up on their land without consent.

The discussion was tabled by unanimous consent and will be tackled again when the ordinance committee convenes Nov. 2.

Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.

Frank Carlson Carlson

By Jason Hawk