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Towns can't restrict political yard signs: Supreme Court has ruled

Chris Voccio received a warning letter from the Niagara Falls code enforcement office telling him the campaign sign he attached to his fence was too big.

So he took down his Chris Voccio for City Council sign, which at about 4 1/2 by 6 feet, ran afoul of a city law limiting political signs to 8 square feet, or 4 feet per side.

Niagara Falls, like many cities and towns, regulates the size of political signs now popping up in neighborhood lawns in the weeks before the Sept. 12 primary.

Other places, like the Town of Hamburg, limit when candidates can put up the signs.

"I recognize a municipality has to have some regulation, because you shouldn't have a 30-by-50-foot neon sign for your neighbors to see," said Voccio. "I get the need for some regulation, but to me it's too restrictive."

Legal experts recommend a simple solution for candidates like Voccio who want to put up political yard signs bigger than their local laws allow and put them up whenever they want and leave them there for however long they choose.

Just challenge the local law.

The New York Civil Liberties Union says a unanimous 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court clearly called regulating signs based on content unconstitutional.

In Cheektowaga, where political sign regulations were wiped out by court action more than 20 years ago, Town Planner Daniel J. Ulatowski said other towns will learn the same lesson anytime someone wants to file a lawsuit.

"You can't restrict speech by time or place," Ulatowski said. "Those communities that still have restrictions on signs of a non-commercial content, I'm sure they'll be subject to challenge when someone wishes to challenge them. To my knowledge, you cannot place limits on the constitutionally protected right of speech by time or place."

Voccio said he's trying to touch base with the local NYCLU director to map a challenge.

"I'm not going to let this go," he said.

Local regulations

For now, many local communities have laws on the books about how big a political sign can be, how soon before the election they can be posted and how long after the election they are allowed to remain.

Niagara Falls' current law was passed in 1998. It's tougher than the older version, which allowed political signs as large as 16 square feet.

There are no longer any outright bans, like the Town of Orchard Park and the Village of Hamburg once had. But it's typical to find a political sign restricted to 4 or 8 square feet and allowed only a few weeks before an election.

The Town of Niagara may have the area's most restrictive law, which requires a permit for political signs, limits their size to 4.7 square feet and allows them only two weeks before an election.

Other restrictions on timing range from three weeks before an election in Lackawanna to 65 days in the City of Lockport.

"Generally, all signs need to be treated the same way, regardless of their content," said Beth Haroules, senior staff attorney for the NYCLU. "So political signs likely can’t be held to a different standard than signs that are not overtly political. If there are restrictions made based on content, there must be a compelling state interest and there must be other outlets available to express the restricted speech."

Haroules said the Supreme Court's ruling stems from a case in which a church successfully challenged sign restrictions in an Arizona town. Since that case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, localities must tread carefully in regulating signs.

"Post-Reed, any differential treatment of a sign based on its content, such as political signs only must be up for so long prior or post-election, is problematic and likely unconstitutional," Haroules said.

She said a town could try to restrict temporary signs, but "defining temporary without reference to content can be tricky."

Bans no longer exist

In Orchard Park, political signs were banned until a local high school student challenged the ban in 2000. Now there are few yard signs because of a long-standing informal agreement among local politicians.

"We don't get a lot of them," said Andrew Geist, the town's supervising building inspector. "That agreement seems to work very well."

Orchard Park's law restricts political signs to 4 square feet and requires them to be gone a week after an election. No rule restricts how long before an election they can be posted.

The Village of Hamburg also was known for having a political sign ban, but Kurt Allen, supervising code enforcement official, said that's no longer the case. Both the village and the Town of Hamburg allow signs as large as 8 square feet, with the town allowing them 30 days before an election and the village using a four-week rule.

"It would appear there is a ban in the village, because there's almost no activity there compared to the town. It's like night and day," Allen said.

Signs in Niagara Falls

Councilwoman Kristen M. Grandinetti, one of the incumbents running in the Falls, said she sees no need for a change in the sign law.

"I'm perfectly fine with it," she said. "I don't think the outsized signs make any difference whatsoever (to voters). I think it can be an obstruction, especially on streets like Walnut or Ferry (avenues) that have heavier, faster traffic."

"I think it should be revisited," said Councilman Andrew M. Touma, also running for re-election in the Falls. "In Niagara Falls, they're out for months."

He said political signs often are stolen or vandalized, and more restrictions "would simplify things and eliminate a lot of aggravation for these candidates."

Touma added, "Signs don't vote. People get carried away with signs."

Looking at local laws

Buffalo repealed its political sign law in 1998, and the city's new Green Code says any temporary sign smaller than 6 square feet doesn't need a permit. There is no longer anything on the books in the city over how long a political sign can remain in a yard.

Amherst's only rule requires signs be taken down seven days after an election.

"There really is nothing regulating the size," said Douglas Gesel, Amherst's senior code enforcement officer.

The City of Tonawanda has no rules on yard signs, and the Town of Tonawanda limits ground-mounted signs to 40 square feet.

The City of Lockport used to ban yard signs, requiring residents to mount them in their windows. That changed in 2009. Now, their size is limited to 4 square feet and they cannot be posted more than 65 days before an election.

North Tonawanda has a four-week rule, but Building Inspector Cosimo R. Capozzi takes a mellow approach to signs on private property.

"Political signs, we don't touch them," he said. "They're usually there only for a short period of time."

But Capozzi is strict on not allowing candidates to post signs elsewhere.

"If I see them on a telephone pole, I've been known to pull over and yank them down," he said.

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