Can I Get My Neighbor to Take Down an Old Political Billboard in His Yard?

An overview of the sign regulations that seek to preserve aesthetics and public safety.

Question

My neighbor has an old political sign in his yard. The sign is huge; in fact, it is more of a billboard than the usual campaign sign people often put in their front yards before an election. Not only is the sign huge, but I also find the message to be offensive. He put the sign up during the last election cycle, but the sign supports an ongoing political cause (if you can call it that), not a single candidate or ballot measure. Is there anything I can do to get my neighbor to take the sign down?

Answer

This question is complicated because it touches on First Amendment rights related to freedom of speech. However, if there is an easy answer to your question, it is likely to be found in a local zoning or sign ordinance.

Most Jurisdictions Regulate Signs for Aesthetic and Safety Reasons

It is common for municipalities to have sign regulations to preserve aesthetics and for public safety. In a case like this, to determine if a sign regulation may control your neighbors sign, your local zoning ordinance (sometimes called a "development code") is a good place to begin. Some locations may have a stand-alone “sign ordinance” that is separate from the zoning ordinance.

Municipalities vary widely in how they regulate signs. Generally, though, a city or county will regulate signs as to time, place, and manner. For instance, the zoning ordinance may allow a property owner in a residential zone to place a sign on property that is two feet by three feet, is not illuminated, and does not obstruct the right of way (so that drivers can see where they're going.)

As to political signs specifically, many municipalities regulate these as “temporary signs.” In practice, this means a city may allow a political sign if it complies with all other regulations and is posted for no more than a certain number of days before and after an election. For example, a city may allow a temporary campaign sign 30 days before an election and seven days after.

Some permanent signs are allowed in residential zones too, however, the owner may need to obtain a permit. The local planning department should be able to tell you whether a permit is necessary and whether the sign owner has a permit. Even if a permanent sign is allowed in your residential zone, the sign will still need to comply with any size and design restrictions.

You will need to review the applicable ordinance carefully to determine how your neighbor’s sign is regulated. A planner in the local planning department may be able to help you make sense out of the ordinance if it is unclear. If you find that your neighbor’s sign does not meet all applicable time, place, and manner requirements, you may be able to file a code enforcement complaint. If the code enforcement department determines there is a violation, your neighbor may have to remove the sign or at least bring it into compliance with the code.

Additional Restrictions May Apply If You Live in a Subdivision or Condominium Development

If you live in a subdivision or condominium development, you should also review any applicable Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions ("CC&Rs"). It is possible that the CC&Rs prohibit or restrict the placement of signs in someone's yard (even if the city's zoning ordinance does not).

The restrictions found in CC&Rs are often stricter than those found in a zoning ordinance. A big benefit of private restrictions such as CC&Rs on signs is that the First Amendment often does provide the same protections as government restrictions do.

Even If Local Government Regulations Prohibit Your Neighbor's Sign, Strict Enforcement May Not Occur Due to Fear of a Constitutional Challenge

The  First Amendment  makes it unlawful in many instances to regulate speech and expression. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that this protection extends to political views expressed on signs located on private property. In  City of Ladue v. Gilleo, a citizen placed a sign in her front yard protesting the Gulf War. The city had a regulation that prohibited all signs, except those signs specifically exempted under the ordinance. While the zoning law exempted some religious, residential "for sale" signs, and other commercial signs, political signs were prohibited.

In  Ladue, the Supreme Court ruled that the city's ordinance violated the First Amendment. The Court acknowledged in its opinion that "free speech" on signs poses some challenges for municipalities because they take up space, have a visual impact, and may distract motorists. However, the Court noted that the city's ordinance went so far as to cover "pivotal speech" protesting an imminent government decision to go to war. The Supreme Court noted in its decision that residential signs often placed on lawns or in windows, play an important part in political campaigns, during which they are displayed to signal the resident's support for particular candidates, parties, or causes.

In light of  Ladue, it is possible that even if there is an ordinance restricting the placement of signs, a local government may be hesitant to enforce it out of fear doing so may lead to a constitutional challenge from the sign owner. Although a court may find reasonable restrictions limiting the size and placement of signs to protect drivers and the public, a complete ban on signs in residential areas that prohibit political signs may ultimately be found to violate the First Amendment.

Mediation May Provide an Alternative Forum to Resolve Your Dispute

Mediation  is a form of alternative dispute resolution that allows parties in conflict to meet with a neutral third party to settle. Mediation may be an option for you and your neighbor, or even for the local government and your neighbor. Through mediation, the parties attempt to find a resolution that each can live with, without having to spend time and money on a lawsuit.

A local attorney can help you decide how far to take the issue. It may be that by challenging your neighbor’s sign, you create a hostile situation that is more unpleasant than having to see your neighbor’s sign. An attorney can help you analyze your specific situation and whether it is worth challenging your neighbor’s sign.

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