County to Consider Removing Time Restraints on Political Signs

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead County Commission will make a decision on April 25 about removing time restraints for political signs on zoned county land.

The decision will come as part of approving 10 amendments to the Flathead County Zoning Regulations. The entire zoning regulation document has been under revision in multiple Flathead County Planning Board workshops since last year.

Of the 10 amendments in question, county planning director BJ Grieve said the largest public response has been to the fourth proposed amendment, which would eliminate prescribed amounts of time a political sign can be placed on private property prior to and after an election.

The previous regulation stated that a political sign on zoned private land could not be “erected more than thirty (30) days prior to and removed not more than one week after the election or event to which the sign pertains.”

That regulation also states that a political sign cannot be larger than 32 square feet, which the planning board did not alter. The amendment includes a comment referring to specific court cases about residential political signs, such as Collier v. City of Tacoma and City of Painesville Building Department v. Dworken and Bernstein Co.

It’s a matter of free speech, Grieve told the commission on April 21 during a public hearing on the amendments. There have been court cases about this matter in different states, he said, and those cases determined people have the right to post signs on their property.

The matter came to light during the 2012 election, Grieve said, and the complaints the planning office received about political signs were not registered because the complainant had a problem with the sign’s aesthetics, but rather because the person complaining was from the opposing campaign.

“Basically, our office was being used for people campaigning to fight against each other,” Grieve told the commission.

Grieve also said that the state Department of Transportation has removed any restrictions about time restraints on political signs, and cities in Montana have stopped attempting to enforce such rules.

Approving the amendment comes at an awkward time, Grieve said, because the primary campaigns for the 2014 elections are underway. But this amendment is not related to this year’s campaigns, he said, and has “been on the to-do list for a while.”

The county planning board recommended on Feb. 12 that the commission approve the amendments.

Four people spoke at the April 21 public hearing about the amendments. Mayre Flowers of Citizens for a Better Flathead said her organization thinks there should be a rule about how long a sign can remain up after an election, and suggested that political signs could be regulated in terms of maintenance.

James Conner spoke in favor of the political sign amendment, saying durational limits on the signs are prior restraint on free speech, and that multiple court cases around the country would support the amendment.

House District 3 candidate Jerry O’Neil spoke in favor of the amendment, saying signs are a form of free speech.

After the public comment, Commissioner Gary Krueger asked about sign regulation on zoned versus unzoned land in Flathead County, as well as on highway corridors. Grieve said the regulations are applicable only to zoned land, and that scenic corridors only regulate billboards, not political signs.

The commission agreed to take the public comment and information they had received about the amendments under advisement until April 25, when they will vote on the matter.

The other nine text amendments mostly clarified existing provisions and making the day-to-day use of the regulations easier for the public, including the administrative condition use permits that would be necessary for cell phone towers in the North Fork; changing references to documents with new names; adding livestock as a permitted use for agricultural zoning; clarifying the use of stables, both public and private, in agriculture and suburban agriculture districts; clarifying street and roadway standards; and clarifying where a caretaker’s facility may be located.

For the full text amendments, visit www.flathead.mt.gov/planning_zoning/meeting_informaion.php.

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