Mayor calls sign ordinance unconstitutional

A+%27No+Cluster+Homes%27+sign+along+Robyn+Road+in+Sunset+Hills+last+year.+

Photo by Erin Achenbach

A ‘No Cluster Homes’ sign along Robyn Road in Sunset Hills last year.

By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

As municipal elections loom the first Tuesday of April, political yard signs for candidates are popping up in municipalities across the county, including Sunset Hills, where its city attorney confirmed that Sunset Hill’s one-sign restriction violates First Amendment rights.

The debate around Sunset Hill’s current sign code began when some residents complained about the number of political signs along Rott Road for Mayor Pat Fribis, who is running for re-election against political newcomer and resident John Stephens.

In an email to city staff and the Board of Aldermen dated Feb. 5, Fribis said that the city’s residential sign ordinance — which only permits one campaign/individual rights sign per lot and two per corner lot — is unconstitutional and unenforceable, which City Attorney Robert E. Jones had confirmed in a memo to City Administrator Eric Sterman the day prior.

“The courts have made it clear that aesthetics and traffic safety are not compelling reasons to regulate signs,” said Fribis in her email. “My campaign was forced to remove signs that exceeded the one sign limitation. I took signs down when the opponent complained.”

Fribis went on to add that her constitutional rights had been violated under United States Supreme Court rulings in “City of Ladue v. Gilleo,” “Reed v. Town of Gilbert” and “Wilson v. City of Bel-Nor.”

Jones confirmed that the city’s one-sign restriction was unconstitutional in his memo to Sterman.

“I suggest that the city refrain from enforcing any section of the sign code that is content-based and instead look at the least restrictive sign that is permitted in a particular zoning district,” said Jones in the memo. “That should be the benchmark for all others. The dimensions and placement of such signs are still subject to regulation by the city as long as there is no differentiation by content.” The city will have a new sign code in the future, as part of the unified development ordinance, or zoning code, that the city is in the process of rewriting with Chicago-based urban planning firm Houseal Lavigne, which Jones said “will alleviate this enforcement problem.”

The zoning code is currently being revised by Houseal Lavigne and will re-appear before the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission in the coming months.

“The Town of Gilbert case made it clear in January of 2015 that regulation of these signs cannot be justified unless they satisfy compelling governmental interest and are presumptively unconstitutional,” Fribis said. “Our ordinance needed to be eliminated or rewritten at least five years ago if not this past summer.”

In a letter to The Call’s editor, Sunset Hills resident Sandra Jo Ankney said that Jones’ opinion was a “disturbing revelation” because residents had previously obeyed the quantity limitations on signs as set out in the ordinance for recent signs protesting cluster homes, rezoning and other issues.

Ankney added in her letter that the appearance of “selective enforcement” is ill-advised and could further deteriorate the city government’s relationship with residents.

Sunset Hills is not the first South County municipality to grapple with its sign code in light of Supreme Court rulings. Crestwood adopted a new sign code this year after five years of review, which began when justices in the Gilbert case cited by Fribis unanimously ruled that many municipal sign codes unconstitutionally distinguish between certain types of speech.

Crestwood’s sign code at the time distinguished between political yard signs and commercial signs.