November 15, 2006
Anyone out for a leisurely drive through Southold is sure to notice the preponderance of temporary lawn signs sprouting up like weeds on private property.
The unsightly problem is growing, said Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, and he means to put a stop to it — and soon.
At last week's work session, Russell met with Ed Forrester, town code enforcement officer, to discuss the growing trend of individuals and businesses that use temporary lawn signs to advertise commercial interests, homes for sale and candidates running for election.
"Current town code does not allow them," he said. However, there is no meaningful way to pursue enforcement, since, although the code allows the town to fine the property owner, in most cases, the property owners are not the violators.
"In fact," said Russell, "They are complaining about the unauthorized use of their property."
But with more signs appearing all the time, Russell said there is an urgent need to address the burgeoning concern. "We need to act now before every road out here starts to look like Vet's Highway," he said. The supervisor referred to a national gym franchise and a contractor as prime examples of sign-happy offenders. "We don't want our hamlets and main roads plastered with temporary advertising signs that get knocked over, blow away and create litter."
Forrester said currently, the town code's sign law does not provide for a quick solution or stiff fines to deter abuse. As it stands, if a sign is not removed after 30 days' notice, the town can remove the sign and assess the property owner for the cost.
Problems arise when illegal signs are placed on town and county right of ways, said Forrester, "The violator gets off with no fine."
Another component of Russell's plan to address the problem is contacting local realtors and asking for voluntary compliance with town real estate sign regulations. Currently, the town code only allows for one sign per property for sale and does not allow off-premise signs, such as those used to direct potential buyers to homes that are on the market.
Although Southold has historically allowed for off-premise signs under a special circumstance such as an open house, town code required that those signs be removed the same day.
"There seems to be a trend right now in relying on the off-premise signs to advertise houses for sale and, with a growing stock of houses on the market, the visual scene out here is getting unsightly," said Russell.
The supervisor added that it is his responsibility to ensure that proper enforcement procedures are followed. "Most businesses, whether a real estate or fitness center, follow the rules," he said. "I cannot allow those who do not follow the rules to gain unfair advantage."
During the work session, Russell also asked Assistant Town Attorney Kieran Corcoran to review the town's options regarding the distribution of advertisements in plastic bags that are thrown, unsolicited, in residents' yards and driveways each week.
"Currently, the newspapers claim a constitutional right," said Russell. "However, the commercial right to free speech is much narrower, and based on the complaints I receive, I do not imagine that the public here in Southold supports the papers' claims. It amounts to sanctioned litter and I want it to stop."
Finally, Russell plans to call on all local political parties to develop reasonable limits to lawn signs. "There is a certain constitutional issue that I do not want to address by code," he said. "However, I think that the local parties can be self-regulating."
The supervisor said that although, historically, local candidates have followed the unwritten rules of placing signs on property where they have permission, recently, "some candidates had been putting them everywhere, including church, state and historical property without consent."
He added: "The local candidates need to set a standard here," and he is certain all parties can decide upon reasonable numbers that the candidate feels comfortable with.
As a candidate himself last year, Russell said, he had a number of signs on the road, but preferred to put the money into informational mailers.
To eliminate the spreading signage problem, Russell called for town code changes and stiff penalties.