2016-12-16 / Front Page

Cape officials overhaul sign rules

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a church billboard in Arizona has prompted Cape Elizabeth to propose a complete overhaul of its sign ordinance.

In its June 2015 decision, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Gilbert, Arizona, violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, by placing different restrictions on signs erected for political, commercial, ideological and traffic purposes.

The Phoenix suburb allowed signs about candidates were allowed to be 32 square feet in size, were unlimited in number, and could stay in place for months, but signs announcing directions to church services and similar events were limited to 6 square feet and four to a property, while they could go up only just before and after the event.

Pastor Clyde Reed, of Good News Church, sued the town over the differing restrictions and the Supreme Court agreed its rights had been violated, given that the allowed size of a sign based on its use necessarily limits what can be said on it.

Justice Clarence Thomas explained the court’s rationale: “If a sign informs its reader of the time and place a book club will discuss John Locke’s ‘Two Treatises of Government,’” he wrote, “that sign will be treated differently from a sign expressing the view that one should vote for one of Locke’s followers in an upcoming election, and both signs will be treated differently from a sign expressing an ideological view rooted in Locke’s theory of government.”

“More to the point,” Thomas wrote, “the church’s signs inviting people to attend its worship services are treated differently from signs conveying other types of ideas.”

According to Town Councilor Jessica Sullivan, Cape’s sign ordinance was in need of an overhaul, regardless.

“We did this to be proactive,” she said. “This is an ordinance that we’ve recognized for a while needed to be redone. The Supreme Court decision put that on the fast track for us.”

Still, she said, conforming with the court ruling proved to be “quite a task.”

Caitlin Jordan, who was chairman of the council’s threeperson ordinance subcommittee during 2016, said her group met six times on the topic.

“We determined the easiest way to approach this, and I’m not sure it was really that easy, was to re-write the sign ordinance, to try to start from scratch, basically,” she said.

According to a committee memo to the full council, “Following the Reed decision, if a code enforcement officer has to read a sign to determine how it is regulated, the regulation is probably not in compliance with Reed. The current sign ordinance fails the ‘need to read’ test.”

That total do-over meant lots of back-and-fourth with Town Attorney John Wall, of the Portland firm Monaghan Leahy. The committee also leaned heavily on Town Planner Maureen O’Meara.

“She was incredible,” Councilor Sara Lennon said. “We would muddle around and vaguely express what we wanted and she’d help us understand, and then she’d come back the next week with this perfect, concise, understandable and legal prose that we could then discuss more.”

The proposed ordinance regulates signs primarily by location, including town-wide, in the residential zone, and in business zones. Signs currently allowed will be “grandfathered” and allowed to remain. That means that the town’s sole electronic message board, located at Cumberland Farms in the town center, can stay, even though the new ordinance calls for a full ban on all such signs.

The draft language also includes a ban on banner signs that cross roadways, and all signs illuminated by internal lighting.

To make different types of signs consistent, so that they cannot be perceived to have had size limits set based on content, some permitted signs will be reduced.

For example, a wall sign may be 32 square feet in size under the new rule, but a duel-sided ground sign may not exceed 16 square feet per side. Perhaps ironically, given the source of the ordinance overhaul, this change reduces the allowed size of church signs in Cape Elizabeth from 72 square feet to 32.

Also, temporary signs in residential developments have been cut from 36 square feet allowed, to 12.

A note included with the draft ordinance language points out that, under the new rules, all existing signs as the town’s lone shopping center and its one gas stations “will become nonconforming.”

However, the new rules do allow the code enforcement officer to permit replacement and repair of those grandfathered signs.

So, if something happens, you don’t have to feel like to have to keep the same decrepit sign up. You can replace it,” Jordan said.

Jordan said the proposed ordinance should be workshopped by the full council before any vote. However, because it has been rebuilt from the ground up, she advised the council conduct a public hearing on the draft first, before diving in on its own.

“It might be important to have a public hearing first, so we don’t have to have two workshops,” she said.

That hearing will take place at the council’s next regular meeting, which gets gaveled into session at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 9, in the newly renamed Michael McGovern Meeting Room at town hall.

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