Signs everywhere

Jamie and Nancy Gregory display their anti-Rockwool yard sign in front of their house on East Liberty Street in Charles Town. A recent change to the city’s sign ordinance relaxes restrictions on yard signs.

CHARLES TOWN – OK, Charles Town residents. Express yourselves!

Your city leaders have given you a regulatory green light. You’re free to declare to your neighbors and the world whatever you think is important, or unimportant — in a yard sign. Your one limitation: Your message has to fit on a sign no bigger than six square feet.

On Monday, the Charles Town City Council made changes to the city’s sign ordinance to meet the latest free speech standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The whole purpose here is that [the new sign ordinance governing noncommercial yard signs] is content-neutral,” said Councilman Mike Brittingham, who helped draft an ordinance to make it pass constitutional muster.

In April, the council backed down after some city residents balked at being asked to take down their anti-Rockwool-factory yard signs. A letter from an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer supported the residents.

The Supreme Court upheld broad First Amendment rights in its 2015 ruling on guiding content-based regulations involved with municipal sign regulations, Brittingham said. The ruling was handed down in a case called Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

“Basically, the Supreme Court ruled that you can’t restrict [non-commercial] signs based upon their content,” Brittingham said, who admitted he wasn’t keen on the ruling.

“I don’t like having to do this with our sign ordinance, to be quite honest. I think it guts it.”

The change lets city property owners display one yard sign containing almost any message that they want — within the bounds of obscenity laws, of course.

And the sign can be displayed all year long. With no impositions from City Hall.

Charles Town residents with lots of land can express themselves even more. Those with properties with more than 100 feet of land fronting a city street can erect a second yard sign all year long. And every 100 feet of city street frontage allows for yet another sign.

City residents also gets a First Amendment lollapalooza during the 60 days before any election. That’s when they can post as many yard signs as they want on any topic with any message, political or otherwise — until 48 hours after the election involved.

“It really is an opportunity for folks around the election cycle to have a little bit more time to have additional signage,” said Seth Rivard, the city’s zoning and sign enforcer.

Before the vote, council members even chimed in with sign ideas of their own.

“Feliz Navidad,” said Mayor Bob Trainor.

“Happy Halloween,” said Brittingham.

“I like Pizza,” chimed in Councilwoman Jean Petti.

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