The Palm Coast City Council is considering allowing signs in the city’s rights of way but limiting the days and times on which the signs are allowed.
Restricting the times when signs are allowed could leave the city open to lawsuits if the city doesn’t have reasonable justification, attorney Catherine Reischmann said. Reischman, from the law firm of Garganese, Weiss & D’Agresta, gave a presentation to the council on proposed changes to the city’s sign codes at a Nov. 14 City Council meeting.
The sign code must be updated because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 2015 Reed v. Town of Gilbert case said that city regulations on signage cannot be content-based.
The Supreme Court ruled that the content-based codes had too many distinctions — for instance, between political, ideological or directional signs — that treated signs differently, Resichmann said.
“If a sign code is content-based, its purpose and justification don't matter," she said.
The Palm Coast Planning and Land Development Regulation Board reviewed a first draft of proposed new sign regulations at its Oct. 18 meeting. The draft could, depending on the City Council’s direction, allow for signs in rights of way, where current regulations ban them.
I think it’s a pro-business conversation, not a signage conversation.”
— ED DANKO, Palm Coast vice mayor
Vice Mayor Ed Danko said he’d like to allow signs in the rights of way, but with restrictions. He suggested, as an example, allowing signs in the rights of ways on the weekends between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The restriction is reasonable, he argued, because city staff works during the weekdays to maintain the rights of way.
“My feeling towards this is I'm very pro-business, any business,” he said. "... I think it’s a pro-business conversation, not a signage conversation.”
The real estate industry would benefit from a change in the rights-of-way policy, allowing directional signs to open houses in the rights of away. Those signs do draw in clients, said council member Cathy Heighter, a real estate agent.
The problem with opening up the rights of way to any signs is that the policy must allow for all signs — including hate speech, Reischmann said.
“So your rights of way become filled, and it creates not only an aesthetic issue, it creates, really, almost a traffic hazard,” she said.
The rights of way would include the ones in front of residential homes unless the city explicitly excluded them. The city would need to justify excluding those rights of way to do so, Reischmann said.
The rights of way in front of a home, while typically maintained by residents, are city property. Danko said the city should try to find a way to exclude rights of way in front of a home.
"No real estate agent or business person would just stick a sign in front of your house," Danko said. "But some clown might, with a message, whether you like the message or not."
There is also the matter of enforcement. Whatever the city decides, Reischmann said, it must enforce the regulations regardless of the nature of the sign.
"You can't be stricter on one type of sign than another," she said.
Council member Theresa Carli Pontieri said enforcement will be difficult. Not only is Code Enforcement already overwhelmed, she said, but policing signs would cost taxpayer money in staffing hours for Code Enforcement employees to go out after work hours to pick up signs left behind.
"I just think it is very unreasonable,” she said.
Danko suggested that the employees could pick up the signs early in the morning of the next work shift, and Pontieri pointed out that people placing the signs would know that.
"They [will] know that, oh, Code Enforcement will go pick it up on Monday, so now I have free advertisement at the cost of the beautification of our city until 8 a.m. on Monday," Pontieri said.
Council member Nick Klufas asked City Attorney Neysa Borkert if it was a conflict of interest for the City Council to vote on the sign proposal when three of the five council members — Danko, Cathy Heighter and Mayor David Alfin, who was absent from the Nov. 14 meeting — are tied to or work in the real estate industry.
I just think it is very unreasonable."
— THERESA CARLI PONTIERI, City Council member
Borkert said council members can only not vote on something that would bring them monetary benefit, or a conflict regarding zoning. Since the policy is not only about real estate signs, Borkert said, she did not see a conflict.
"It's too tenuous," she said. "There's no benefit there."
The policy draft would also loosen regulations on how many signs can be placed on a property. If approved, for example, the draft policy would allow for two real estate signs on a for-sale lot, while the current policy only allows one.
Homeowners would be allowed up to six “non-commercial” signs — which would include political signs — no greater than 6 square feet or greater than 6 feet in height.
Danko said limiting the number of signs would be too restrictive, especially considering election cycles. Pontieri said the council has a duty to keep Palm Coast beautiful.
"That is one of the things that people take pride in our city for," Pontieri said. "Ms. Reischmann and staff have ... endeavored to strike a very reasonable balance here."
Ultimately, the council asked Reischmann to return to the council with case law about restricting the times and days when right-of-way signs are allowed.
"I don't want to delay us in this," Danko said, "I want to make sure we move forward quickly, but with all of the information we need."