SCOTUS ruling forcing sign code changes

by Emmitt B. Feldner
of The Review staff

PLYMOUTH – A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year has municipalities across the country scrambling to rewrite their sign codes.

City Attorney Crystal Fieber met with the Plan Commission Thursday to outline the changes she is proposing to Plymouth’s sign ordinance in the wake of the Reed vs. Town of Gilbert decision from 2015.

“The Supreme Court, in its decision, said that as a governing body you can not regulate signs by content. (For example) you can not treat real estate signs different from a sign announcing an event. (This decision) threw every municipal sign ordinance into chaos,” Fieber explained to the commission members.

“You can not regulate signs based on what it communicates. That’s where we’re starting from,” she continued.

Fieber said the proposed new ordinance she presented did include one change that was not a result of the Reed vs. Town of Gilbert decision.

That is the inclusion in the list of sign definitions of a definition for a mural.

That definition reads, “A handpainted work of visual art of historic significance that is either affixed to or painted directly on the exterior wall of a structure.”

“The idea was that future murals should be consistent with the murals the city already has,” Fieber explained.

A new section on murals would limit them only to the commercial business zoning district and require them to be “of historic significance … and constructed in such a manner as to be compatible with neighboring properties.”

Fieber told the commission that the court ruling still allows municipalities to regulate signs based on noise, size, combination of size (for multiple signs) and location when it impacts public safety and traffic.

The city will also be able to continue prohibiting or regulating signs advertising businesses off the business premises.

That, Fieber noted, would include the city’s current ban on construction signs on residential properties.

One area of conflict Fieber noted is regulation of political signs. She noted that while the Supreme Court said municipalities cannot regulate signs based on their message, the state of Wisconsin currently has a statute which governs the size, number and amount of time for political signs.

Thus, Fieber said, she included the language from the state law in the proposed new city sign ordinance. That would prohibit signs in the public right-of-way, that impede traffic or vision, that have flashing or open lights, or are larger than 11 square feet in size.

Alderman John Nelson, a member of the Plan Commission, expressed support for limiting the size of political signs within the city, noting that he was concerned about “sign pollution.”

Fieber conceded that the greatest difficulty in adapting the court ruling was in the section of the code listing authorized signs.

Building Inspector Pete Scheuerman questioned whether the rules on authorized or unauthorized signs should apply to those posted inside windows, whether in commercial or residential zones.

“Anything on the inside of windows I think is off-limits,” he commented. “Once you break that threshold, that’s their personal space. On the outside of the building is public space, inside is their space.”

Fieber conceded that signs inside windows could be left out of the code if the commission agrees. “If you want to come back to that later, you can add it.”

She also predicted that the Reed vs. Town of Gilbert decision will likely not be the last word on the issue.

“I’m expecting that over the next five to 10 years, the regulation on signs is going to change again and again,” she predicted, as changes promulgated in the wake of the court ruling could be appealed.

The commission took no action on the ordinance but accepted it for study and consideration before taking action on it later.

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