As anyone who has built a new home or started a business will tell you, most towns have strict zoning codes and they don’t generally hesitate to enforce them. Sometimes there are gray areas in the law, the parties cannot agree and the matter winds up in court.
On rare occasions, national politics intrudes. Welcome to Washington – not the District of Columbia, but the sleepy town of 3,500 in Litchfield County where the nation’s first president once spent the night and where the biggest acts in town are a fancy prep school and a renowned bookstore.
At issue is a large banner – easily big enough to cover the entire first floor of the front of a medium-sized house – proclaiming the occupants’ fealty to former president Donald Trump.
The oversized political sign ruffled enough feathers to prompt at least a dozen complaints and, finally, attract the attention of Shelley White, the town’s land-use administrator, who pleaded for patience on the Washington Community Facebook page.
The kerfuffle also attracted the attention of the Hartford Courant, which contacted the owners of the home on Route 202, Wayne and Bridget Waldron, who told reporter Don Stacom they have no plans to take it down even after their home has been vandalized and after being warned by town officials to dismantle it.
“We’ve been contacted by lawyers who are ready to take this as a case for free speech,” Bridget told Stacom. “What are people scared of? They’re having meltdowns.”
As might be expected, complainants and town officials went to great lengths to emphasize that they do not object to the content of the sign but rather, its size. One complainant characterized the Waldron’s sign as “massive” – ironically, a hyperbolic descriptor favored by the former president himself.
Town officials in particular are wise to object only to the physical nature of the banner. Caviling about the content of the sign would smack of stifling political speech and would likely run afoul of the First Amendment.
When I contacted Bridget on Sunday in an attempt to obtain a photograph of the banner, she said the town had not yet taken any legal action. To my surprise, she also told me the banner is actually a tarp that she and her husband put up for a utilitarian purpose.
Bridget, who with her husband has been the subject of ridicule on social media, was given the banner by a friend a couple of years ago. The transmission on one of her cars recently failed and rather than have it towed, she and her husband decided to hire a mechanic to repair the vehicle on premises, under the overhang on their ground-level front porch. The vehicle is under the porch’s roof and behind the tarp, which she said acts as a thermal barrier to keep the mechanic warm in the late-November chill.
“For that, they have no regulations,” Bridget said. “They try to say it’s not the content of the tarp. Right, right.” Bridget quickly added that the tarp also provides “protection from all the stones [and] debris that kick up from the road and crack our windows.”
I could not independently confirm the veracity of Bridget’s story, but it raises an interesting question nonetheless. If the navy-blue tarp had no writing or graphics on it and it was also erected as a temporary thermal barrier, would anyone complain?
Moreover, if the same-sized banner had merely extended ongoing holiday greetings (e.g. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur) to passersby, would the scrooges of Washington Depot march into Town Hall and demand the bringers of good seasonal cheer be sanctioned? I think we all know the answer to that question.
Section 16 of the town of Washington zoning regulations covers signage. It states that signs larger than two square feet require approvals from town zoning officials. “Political signs” are categorized as “temporary” and do not require a permit as long as they’re not posted for more than two weeks. The section of the regulations covering political signs is obviously geared to candidates for elections. But the Waldrons’ sign, 30 feet long and 10 feet high, is not a call to action to re-elect Trump. It merely celebrates his perceived greatness.
Regulating political signs has always been a thorny issue. I recall in 1999 when I was a journalist in Dutchess County, New York, a woman erected a plywood sign on her front lawn large enough to require bracing. The sign registered her opposition to a proposed 73-acre gravel mine near her home: “Stop the Pit, Save the Valley.”
After town officials objected, the New York Civil Liberties Union got involved, declaring that “the sign constitutes speech on a public issue which the town cannot prohibit.” But the town supervisor, himself an opponent of the mine, nonetheless declared the sign illegal because “it advertises an issue.”
The matter wound up in the hands of the town’s zoning appeals board, where an NYCLU attorney showed examples of other signs in town that were in violation of the code and cited numerous examples of case law in which the courts have “sided with citizens over municipalities in such circumstances.” The board quietly dropped the matter and the owner of the sign later removed it after the state rejected the company’s gravel-mine permit application four years later.
At approximately the same time, the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research answered a citizen inquiry on whether towns can restrict political signs. The OLR report cited a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision that “upheld lower court rulings declaring an ordinance that bans residential signs [including political signage] an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech.”
But a later Supreme Court ruling appears to have reversed the precedent set by the 1994 case. In response to a complaint from an Arizona church in 2015, the high court ruled unanimously that the town of Gilbert’s laws, which placed stricter limitations on religious signs than other types of signs, was an unconstitutional content-based restriction on free speech.
In other words, the court found that restrictions on signs are permissible as long as the regulations are not “content-based.” According to Halloran Sage, a law firm based in Hartford, case law and Connecticut General Statutes allow municipalities to impose regulations on signage so long as they are “silent as to the content of the sign.”
So my layman’s reading of the law is that the town of Washington is within its rights to apply its regulations in the case of the Waldrons’ signs, as long as it can demonstrate that any enforcement is based not on the sign’s message but strictly on whether it complies with Section 16 of the town zoning code.
As a journalist, I would prefer the courts err on the side of free speech. But I also recognize that state and municipal governments have a legitimate right – indeed an obligation – to enforce fairly applied regulations. If the Waldrons continue their fight and the case makes its way to court, any decision might hinge on whether the tarp is indeed a thermal barrier that happens to contain language and images, or an oversized sign that poses a distractive hazard to motorists.
Stay tuned …