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Flat Rock loosens rules on political signs

The new "content neutral" Flat Rock sign ordinance applies uniformly to all signage, meaning signs like these cannot be regulated. The new "content neutral" Flat Rock sign ordinance applies uniformly to all signage, meaning signs like these cannot be regulated.

Under the strong protests even from those who voted yes, the Flat Rock Village Council OK'd a new sign ordinance that greatly expands the rights of homeowners and other landowners to post political signs on their property.

The council voted 3-2 for the new ordinance in an effort to meet the demands of the plaintiffs, who sued on the grounds that a sign ordinance the Village Council adopted in 2017 unconstitutionally infringed on free speech. The plaintiffs, newly elected council member Anne Coletta and Cultural Landscape Group: Flat Rock, relied on a U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down an Arizona town’s ordinance that opponents said unlawfully regulated political speech.
Council members Ginger Brown and Paige Posey voted no, saying the new ordinance allows a permissiveness that will clutter roadsides and damage the town’s historic charm by allowing unlimited campaign signs that can stay up forever. The best stated reason for adopting the new ordinance — to avoid spending more money on lawyers — is not reason enough, Posey said.

"The reason we had sign ordinance in the first place was to protect the esthetic of the village," Brown said. "This kind of goes against that, if anyone can put a sign up and leave it up forever."

The new ordinance scraps entirely the village's authority to regulate any signage that is content specific, including political signs, construction signs and real estate signs. "The regulations apply uniformly to all signage, regardless of the content or intent of a sign," Mayor Staton said in a statement describing the new ordinance.
Mayor pro tem Nick Weedman, who will be sworn in as mayor on Dec. 12, said he would support adopting the new ordinance and revisiting the objections when the new council is sworn in. The Planning Board's objections included the size of signs — which is doubled from 4 to 8 square feet — and the number of signs in a yard, which the ordinance does not limit.
“It appears to me that some of the issues that are still on the table have to do with physical attributes,” which the village can regulate, Weedman said. “I say we go ahead and resolve the thing, come back later and go through it point by point.”

Planning Board member Bruce Holliday told the council that the new ordinance is likely to result in the opposite of its stated purposes to make the village more attractive and harmonious.

“As a member of the Planning Board, we’ve gone through it three or four times and there is no language limiting the number of signs, so if I wanted to put up the same sign on my property 10 times or 20 times or 30 times, per this ordinance, there’s no limitation on that.”

The new ordinance’s stated intent to preserve “an attractive and harmonious community” is “disingenuous,” Holliday said. “I don’t think that’s true.”

 “That is the intent of it,” Mayor Staton responded. “It may not be the result of it.”

The stated intent is also to “lessen the visual clutter … and enhance the beautification of the village.”

“Clearly I don’t believe that’s true,” Holliday said. “I think all that language really doesn’t have a place in this particular ordinance because none of those things are achieved or promoted or enhanced by this ordinance.”

Holliday then asked Staton how much the village had spent on the lawsuit so far. The village had already paid its Asheville-based lawyers $15,000 to defend the lawsuit in federal court, Staton said, and he predicted that the bills to come will exceed the $25,000 the village has appropriated in the 2019-20 budget.

“That’s unconscionable,” Holliday responded. “As a member of the Planning Board I sat in this room with Anne Coletta four consecutive meetings talking about this sign ordinance. At any point in any one of those four meetings, she or any other member of the Cultural Landscape Group could have brought this to our attention” and potentially avoided a lawsuit.  

“For the village to spend 30 thousand plus dollars on this is an outrage,” he said. “I can’t believe that we’ve come to this and as a member of the community I’m deeply disappointed.”

"The new ordinance will most likely be put in place not because this is what the residents of Flat Rock want, but rather because the Village is being held financial hostage by a plaintiff with a pro bono lawyer," Holliday said in an email that he emphasized was his opinion, not a statement of the Planning Board. "The ordinance will ultimately have a negative impact on the quiet nature and aesthetic quality of the village — as was clearly demonstrated during the most recent election cycle. This ordinance will do nothing to Save Our Scenic Byways.'  The hypocrisy is startling."

Victor Behoriam, a member of the Cultural Landscape Group who attended the meeting, said the CLG would support the smaller size and a limit on the number of signs in yards.

“Our position is mostly in agreement with what the Planning Board objected to,” he said, including “sign size, time limit and number of signs allowed. That was certainly included in the originally draft (of the ordinance fixes) that was accepted by both attorneys and CLG. Someone modified and loosened the wording in the 11th hour. Certainly, we didn’t do it. It’s totally against what we had intended or wanted.”

Behoriam predicted that the new council will move quickly to tighten the ordinance.

“Incoming mayor Weedman and the incoming council members have assure CLG that these deficiencies in the new ordinance will be addressed soon. There’s no reason for any of that stuff to have been changed. It only got changed to shine poorly on CLG. That was never our intent. It was all about the content.”

Coletta, who was out of the country this week, also said CLG favors tighter restrictions than the new ordinance contains.

"Content neutral does NOT mean no restrictions," she said in a text message. "In fact, strict restrictions can be put in the physical attributes of signs. CLG’s initial draft to the village council had strict size limitations on temporary signs as well as a time limit (our signs would be considered temporary signs). That draft was rejected by the village council. Their next submission allowed larger signs and removed the time limit.

"In order to meet the court’s deadline and to accommodate the council’s wishes, we agreed with their language of larger signs and no time limit even though we are in favor" of restricting the size and limiting how long they can remain. "The new council can at any time tweak the ordinance to deal with some of these issues."

The council vote appeared to remove a potential “conflict of interest,” as Staton described it, with Coletta becoming both the lawsuit’s plaintiff and defendant when she is sworn in to the council on Dec. 12.