Political Yard Sign Size & Duration Limits Proposed

At tonight’s Planning Board Meeting, amendments to various zoning regulations were discussed and voted upon. One such amendment was proposed by Planning Director Bill Nierstedt, who opened by mentioning that ordinances that do not permit signs in the public right of way are unconstitutional. According to Nierstedt, Plainfield has one of these unconstitutional ordinances.

One of John Campbell's 4' x 4' signs on Central Avenue in Plainfield.

One of John Campbell’s 4′ x 4′ signs on Central Avenue. These signs are 2/3 of the maximum allowable size of 4′ x 6′

Instead of simply lifting a ban of all signs in the public right of way or attaching rules to public signs, he inexplicably proposed rules outlining size, and duration limits, for all political signs, including private signs. I wondered “Why now?”, then realizing that the only large signs that I could think of are John Campbell’s, that are appearing on private property. Nierstedt proposed a 2′ x 2′ size limit along with a sign placement limit of two months before the election and one week after. It’s worth noting that time limits for signs has also been a civil rights concern fought against by New Jersey’s ACLU, if the goal here is constitutionality. The measure would go into effect in January 2014. A few board members had enforcement concerns, a couple of others expressed fondness of South Plainfield’s large signs, and Councilman Bill Reid asked how this would affect the long tradition of leaving signs up from the primary until the general election – he was told it would be against the law. Generally, though, it seemed that the measure would pass despite a clear lack of objection to large signs on the part of almost all board members.

Adrian Mapp's billboard at E Second Street and Watchunge Avenues (photo by Dan Damon)

Adrian Mapp’s billboard at E Second Street and Watchung Avenue last May (photo by Dan Damon)

Then, Board Member Sandra Chambers mentioned a prominent large political sign from earlier this year, Adrian Mapp’s at Second Street and Watchung, clearly larger than 2′ x 2′. Mr Nierstadt reread his amendment and contemplated before agreeing with her assertion, that a billboard is just as political as a yard sign, and that political billboards would also be banned under this ordinance. To avoid doing so, he opted to scrap the size limit and keep the maximum duration. The board voted in favor of this change.

Another political sign issue was brought up shortly afterwards: the instances where candidates line up several of their own identical signs on public or private space. Board members suggested all sorts of ways to remedy this problem – minimum spacing of 10 feet apart, only one of any given sign per property, only one sign in any given “area” – but for every rule there was a worthy exception. Additionally, Chairman Kenneth Robertson insisted that these sorts of rules would be almost impossible to enforce and that people “would do it anyway”.

The planning board ultimately decided to put the matter in the hands of an attorney. The attorney will deem whether or not trying to ban multiple, identical signs close to one another is possible or if it is not worth the legislation and enforcement issues that it may entail.

One wonders, though, why did we have this flirtation with size limits now? This hasn’t been an issue in Plainfield and the only person in the room who was passionate about sign size was Mr Nierstedt himself. Perhaps, as one could very reasonably assume, this was spurred on by opponents of John Campbell’s 4′ x 4′ signs – but why, then, were these signs never explicitly mentioned in the conversation? Either there is a monumental coincidence here or there is a lack of transparency. Let’s stay tuned to developments, which will better explain the situation.

9 thoughts on “Political Yard Sign Size & Duration Limits Proposed

  1. Limiting the size or spacing of political signage on private property would probably be an infringement of an individual’s 1st Amendment right to free speech. I can see some size limitation for public right-of-ways, especially if there is a potential safety hazard, but otherwise political speech is generally protected under the Constitution.

    It would be shameful if this issue was provoked by Mr. Campbell’s opponents. I also think, for the sake of transparency, that you should have made note in this article that you are the school board running mate of Mr. Campbell’s mother, and that his father is your campaign chairman.

  2. David, I’m glad that you are starting to attend such things as Planning Board meetings and so forth–it will help you get a grasp on how Plainfield government works (or doesn’t, as the case may be). But you need to be careful not to jump to conclusions! Bill Nierstedt is a real professional and the most non-political person on the city staff–nobody pulls his strings. As for the signs, although I hadn’t thought about it before, it seems to me that there’s a clear difference between a 4×4 sign on someone’s lawn in a residential area and a billboard on top of a downtown building.

  3. With regard to signs in the public right of way, read City Council v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789 (1984) (http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/466/789/case.html). Doesn’t appear to have been changed by a later Supreme Court decision. Based on this decision, the municipality has the right to ban the signs in the public right of way.

    With regard to signs on private property, the subject is debatable to the extent that such signs can be regulated (certainly not prohibited). Most decisions that I found were at lower or appeals court levels, and many referred to prior Supreme Court decisions, including the above, to throw out bans and other over-reaching controls. However, it does appear that a well-crafted sign ordinance could place limits on any type signs located on private property, but would probably fail if it was targeted to one type, e.g., political..

  4. David, there is a big difference between billboards, which are commercial speech (paid for by the advertiser) and yard signs, which are part of political campaigns. Many towns have folks who object not just to political signs, but even ‘for sale’ signs.

    Billboards may be governed by municipal ordinances as to size and placement on buildings, but the subject matter is between the billboard’s owner (CBS Outdoor in the vase of the Mapp example) and the advertiser. As to whether or not there are ‘free speech’ considerations, consider that there are plenty of billboards advertising dangerous and/or unhealthy products: cigarettes, beer and liquor and MvDonald’s offereings come to mind.

    Also, billboard space is rented for a period of time with a contract; however, it is common practice tor the sign owner to leave a billboard in place after the expiration date if there is no immediate replacement to be pasted up.

    • Email Mr Nierstedt and tell him that. I simply recounted the debate that took place and what I made of it, my only comment on anything legal being that the ACLU in NJ fights against political sign duration limits as a civil rights issue. It was stated in the meeting that banning political signs larger than 2 x 2 would also ban billboards. I thank you and Michael for clarification.

      As Michael said, banning large signs that are political in nature, but not other non-political signs, is shaky ground – and Mr Nierstedt’s proposal focused only on political signs.

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