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Election Signs Forbidden in Commercial Zones? Really?

by on August 7th, 2012

I received an interesting call from Wausau’s inspections department yesterday.  Apparently, we are violating Wausau’s zoning codes and someone complained about this violation and now the City is following up.
So.. what did we do?  Trash can out too early? – Nope.  Lawn not mowed? – Nope.  A property condition that is contributing to Wausau’s inner-city housing blight? – Nope.  What did we do that is taking our inspections department away from addressing real problems?

We are allowing candidates to put up political signs on some of our properties.

It seems like this year, with two rounds of recalls, that the political season never really ended.  As such, there has been yard signs up for this candidate or that candidate for a while now.  I had always wondered just how useful these signs were.  Did seeing a number of people supporting candidate X through signs help sway voters?  However, as useless as a tool that signs are, I always just assumed that these signs were political free speech.  Currently, I am speaking out against the established political parties who transfer power back and forth, neither one who really represents me, but having a large sign in my yard supporting the Libertarian candidate on the Assembly ballot.

It turns out, in the City of Wausau at least, that the power of free speech through signs for political candidates does not expand beyond Wausau’s residential zoning districts.  If you have a political sign in business zoning, it needs to come down.

My employer has a number of high-visibility commercial properties in Wausau that every election cycle has signs for candidates on them.  However, when giving candidates permission to put their sign up, our long-standing company policy is to not grant exclusive access to the lot.  If candidate X wants their sign up on our land, they can put up their sign.  However, if candidate Y also asks to put a sign up, we are going to allow them to do so also.  We just ask that they are adults about it and not put up their sign in a way to block or to interfere with others signs on the property.  (This asking the candidates to be adults didn’t seem to work that well during the recall election, as the battling signs just got silly after a while.)

I received a call for signs that we have on our parking lot at 119 Clark Street (or the signs on the north side of Stewart Avenue between 1st and 3rd Avenues).  Currently, there are signs up for the Libertarian and Republican candidates.  The ONLY reason that there were no democratic candidate signs up on that parcel is because no candidates had asked.  But, it turns out that these signs will need to come down.

It will be interesting to see if the inspections department are only going to ask a certain party to take their signs down off of commercially zoned properties.  Are they going to go through town and note every single sign and contact every single commercial property owner?  Or, are they only going to respond to complaints? Either way, how much time is going to be spent on this issue versus tackling REAL problems.

So… can the City of Wausau ban political signs in business zoning districts?  After all, that seems like a free speech violation.  I don’t know if they can, but they do.  And after doing some research, it looks like they have the State of Wisconsin’s backing on this.

Here is how the law works in the City of Wausau.  Although you are free to do whatever you want on your property, your enjoyment of your property cannot impact the enjoyment of other people using their property.  The tool to accomplish this are zoning laws.

Properties are divided into various zones.  Zoning ordinances specifically spell out what you can and cannot do on your property.  If something is “permitted”, you are free to do it.  If something is “conditional”, you have to ask the city’s permission and they can take these requests on a case by case basis.  If what you want to do is not on the “permitted” list, and not on the “conditional” list, you simply can’t do it.  It had been determined by someone at some time that things not on either list, if done, would interfere with others trying to enjoy their property.  So, this would be the reason you can’t have an industrial chemical plant in residential zoning.

If you go to Wausau’s ordinances, 23.14.060(a)(8) talks about political signs.  This specific ordinance covers political signs and what is allowed.  This is important, because if the ordinances doesn’t allow it, it is not allowed.  This ordinance, which does allow political signs, is found in the R-1 (Single family residential) zoning codes.  When looking through all of the residential zoning districts, they all state that the signage ordinances for the R-1 apply.  However, when you get to the other non-residential zoning districts, there are no mention of political signs, so by default, they are not allowed.  One thing that 23.14.060(a)(8) does is refer back to Chapter 12 of Wisconsin Statutes in when political signs are allowed.  So, I decided to go take a peek at that as well.

When looking at WI SS 12, and specifically 12.04, it appears that the State of Wisconsin endorses Wausau’s business property political signage prohibition.  Although Wisconsin State Statute does indicate that municipalities cannot prohibit these political signs and can only limit them based on size, this statute applies ONLY to residential properties.  So, one could deduce that it was never the intent of the State to allow signs on business properties.

I have contacted some people who know people who are more well versed in constitutional and federal law to do some research on how “legal” this City of Wausau (and apparently State of Wisconsin) prohibition is.  For now though, I am going to call it a City of Wausau prohibition.  The State Statute does not say that you can’t have the signs on business property, it only says you MUST allow them on residential.  Each municipality can choose how to handle their own business zoning districts.

The City of Wausau now has a choice.  They can either spend time and resources policing these signs on business properties.  And, with my time spent on the Housing Task Force, I am sure they can find better ways to spend their time policing properties.  OR… they can add a provision in the code that would allow these political signs.

Do I think these signs are an eye sore… yes I do.  But, we are a free society and the election season (in normal years) is not that long.  I should be free to put a sign in my yard supporting my candidate(s) of choice during the election season as defined by WI SS 12.  I should be free to do this regardless of zoning.

How many people on the city council, even the mayor, had their signs up on commercially zoned properties illegally?

The City can aggressively enforce a policy that arguably impacts free speech.  Or, they can change the ordinance to reflect how things have been done for the last million or so years.

Come on City Leaders – Make the Right Call…. your inspections department seriously has better things to do.

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