Old city laws for signs may pose a Constitutional problem following a July 2015 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to Oberlin law director Jon Clark.
At his urging, city council agreed Monday to pay an estimated $10,000 to Cleveland-based law firm Walter Haverfield to review ordinances that regulate signs.
Councilwoman Sharon Soucy said $10,000 “may seem like a lot, but a lawsuit would eat that up real quickly.”
“So I think we want to be sure we are on the cutting edge of where the court system is sitting, and I think this will protect the city and make decisions in planning much more effective,” she said.
The courts had long held that cities could make rules for signs as long as they didn’t target specific ideas or political positions. For example, a city could require political yard signs to be removed 30 days after an election.
Clark said the Supreme Court ruled that government can’t control the content of signs — it can’t treat “for sale” signs differently from those supporting candidates for office. Cities can, however, control the reasonable location, size, times, and manner in which signs are displayed, he said.
Councilman Bryan Burgess recalled seeing signs in Oberlin that say, “Build bridges, not walls” or “No NEXUS.”
“I hope there’ s a creative way that we can still protect people’s ability to put those types of signs in their yard and not regulate them in the same manner that you would a large commercial property sale sign,” he said.
Clark said he believes that end can be accomplished and that’s why Oberlin needs a full review of its ordinances by a professional firm.
Oberlin is not the only city to wrestle with sign issues.
Last year, nearby Amherst updated its ordinances at the behest of its law director, Tony Pecora, who also worried about First Amendment issues.
Amherst’s council decided it was prudent to regulate the condition of signs, telling residents they can’t have any that are tattered, broken, huge, have bothersome lighting, or block the view of traffic.
Changes made by Amherst led to campaign signs for President Donald Trump remaining in yards for months after the November election.
Now Amherst city workers check signs every 90 days to make sure they comply with regulations. They can also require property owners to remove or replace ones that don’t comply.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.