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Flat Rock imposes new rules on yard signs

The Flat Rock Village Council amended a municipal ordinance to require property owners to remove yard signs once an issue has been decided. The Flat Rock Village Council amended a municipal ordinance to require property owners to remove yard signs once an issue has been decided.

FLAT ROCK — Aiming to prevent the proliferation of issue-oriented signs in the historic town, the Flat Rock Village Council has adopted new rules on the size of signs and how long they can stay up.

The council voted unanimously on Dec. 13 to enact the new regulations on yard signs and other political signs that support or oppose a candidate or an issue that the council may vote on. For starters, the ordinance broadens the definition of a political sign to include not just matters voters are voting on but which “members of a public legislative body” may vote on.
The impetus for the change, Mayor Bob Staton said, was the proliferation of signs by groups and individuals opposed to the Highland Lake Road widening project, which was strongly opposed by Historic Flat Rock Inc. and resulted in the creation of another organization, Cultural Landscape Group Flat Rock, to oppose the widening project.
Support for regulating roadside signs came from the public before the Village Council voted last June to endorse the NCDOT project.
“We’ve been trying to get this amended since last May or June when we first started getting complaints but I thought it was premature to attack those signs when there was a legitimate issue that a number of people were concerned about,” Staton said. Residents called and wrote the village about the campaign “littering our streets with signs that say ‘Keep the big rigs out’ and all that nonsense from the opposition to the Highland Lake Road improvement project. The Cultural Landscape Group put out signs that said ‘Save Our Scenic Byways.’ It doesn’t go on a scenic byway. It does intersect with one (Greenville Highway), right there in front of the Presbyterian church, and the only thing happening there is an improvement at that intersection to keep buses from going in that big wide open ditch.”
Although Highland Lake Road abuts the Flat Rock Historic District, NCDOT engineers have designed the project so it doesn’t encroach on the district. The only place the road widening affects the historic district is at the corner at Greenville Highway, where the project will make room for right turns from Greenville Highway onto Highland Lake Road.
The amended sign ordinance:
• Reduces the maximum size of political signs from 16 to 4 square feet.
• Limits the number of signs per lot to one.
• Requires that signs relating to an issue voted on by the Village Council (or the Board of Commissioners, Congress or any other “public legislative body”) be removed within three days of a final vote or a motion to table without further consideration action on the issue.
• Empowers the village administrator to issue notices of violation to the sign owner and owner of property it’s placed on. It also empowers the village administrator, Pat Christy, to remove signs from the public right of way without notice.
The ordinance’s civil penalties for violations remain unchanged, at $10 a day for 30 days and $100 a day after that.
“We had more complaints from people about their signs that just proliferated all over all up and down Little River Road, up and down Greenville Highway and of course on Highland Lake Road,” Staton said.
The complaints increased after the Village Council voted to endorse the project, when people assumed the matter was settled. “We got telephone calls, we got letters,” he said, from people asking why the village couldn’t do something about the signs.
So far Village Administrator Pat Christie has not issued a notice of violation or imposed fines, partly because the Dec. 8-9 snowstorm shut down things.
“Our sign enforcement officer went ahead and took down signs that were actually in the right of way,” he said.
Staton defended the size reduction.
“We have no political posters in Flat Rock that size and no other sign permitted in front of someone’s house that size,” he said. “Most of the political signs for candidates are less than that. I know there was one humongous sign (on Little River Road) but it was urging voters to vote for photo ID for voters.”
Annie Coletta, president of the Cultural Landscape Group, said her group is concerned that the new ordinance limits the First Amendment right of residents and homeowners to express their opinion about village issues.
“I would not say we oppose it. We don’t think it meets the criteria for being constitutional,” she said. “We’re just asking the village to take the steps to make sure it does meet that test. We request that they get First Amendment advice. Based on the research that we have done we have serious concerns about the language adopted on Dec. 13. I would say at this point we’re dealing with the signs that we put up last year. Our concern is that the First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their government and anytime that’s curtailed it’s concerning.”
Staton, an attorney, said all of those concerns have been addressed.
“They picked the cases that supported their position but there are any number of cases that support the position that as long as we’re uniform in the way we apply our laws and there’s a valid reason for it, including the nonproliferation of signs to protect the historic district and protect the landscape, those are constitutional reasons,” he said. “I’ve done the same research they have and so has (village attorney) Sharon Alexander. It complies with the law and it’s constitutional. If they want to contest it we’re prepared to do that.”
Coletta said the Cultural Landscape Group has not decided whether to sue or take other action against the sign rule changes.
“At this point, we have not made a final decision,” she said. “As a board we are in the process of discussing that. Our understanding is that in reading the Supreme Court cases we’ve looked at there should be no difference in how a sign is treated based on their content and we see differences in the village ordinance based on the content of the signs.”
Coletta cites the 2015 Reed v. Town of Gilbert Supreme Court case, which barred a city from regulating signs based on content.
“Since 2015, the law has become a lot more strict as far as what local government can or cannot allow,” she said.