Warrensburg Intended to Restrict Organization Signs to 2 Ft. Square
PRFA IS FORCED TO DEFEND ITS FREEDOM OF SPEECH
Large "NO APA" Sign with PRFA Web Site Was Threatened
The Warrensburg Town Board tried to slip through a severe new sign ordinance during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day that would have prohibited the big sign with the symbol for "NO APA" and the PRFA web site URL on Ted Galusha's house on Route 9. While giving pleasure to the local people, the sign had caused resentment on the part of bureaucrats.
Ted Galusha telephoned me on December 22, 2006. "I was going over the Warrensburg legal notices," he said. "They are trying to pass a new sign ordinance."
He had already obtained a copy of the proposed law. Over the telephone, he read one clause: "A sign which recognizes a national, state or local organization shall not exceed four square feet in area."
This clause would have prohibited the large wooden sign that several local people, including Ted, his wife Robin and I, had constructed and lettered, followed by a gathering of friends who had ceremoniously mounted it on the north side of his house. The sign, with the red and black circle and slash symbol, "NO APA," above the PRFA web site, www.prfamerica.org, is a source of merriment to southbound drivers on Route 9. However, extending high across much of the side of the house, the sign far exceeded the size to be allowed by the proposed law.
On August 19, 2005, as the sign was hoisted in place, horns of passing vehicles honked the approval of their drivers. Smiling passengers waved. The continuing popularity of the sign apparently stems from its bold expression for the pent-up local resentment about the governor-appointed Adirondack Park Agency, which imposes zoning and environmental regulations that interfere in countless ways with the use of private property over a region extending across twelve counties here in northern New York.
But, judging by visits by the building and zoning enforcement officer, Ted felt that the sign was an irritation to the new town supervisor. The APA likes to try to create a false public impression that resentment against the agency has died down. However, the lack of constant, obvious expression for the anti-APA undercurrent is more the result of the inability of working people to keep up a visible campaign as more than three decades of injustice have worn on. A sign like that on Ted's house bodes ill for the credibility of the APA's public strategy of pretending that supposedly good relations exist between it and the local people.
One of the outrageous clauses of the proposed ordinance was its treatment of existing signs. The restrictive requirements would have made a high proportion of the significant business signs illegal. In Warrensburg, most signs have to be somewhat large, because business is drawn in from passing traffic on Route 9. Yet, obtaining a permit for an existing sign would have been problematic, considering that granting a permit was to be entirely at the discretion of the enforcement officer under a clause that began with the words, "A pre-existing non-conforming Sign may stay in existence provided that they conform to the following:" By using the word "may," rather than "shall," the framers of the ordinance left the matter to the choice of the permitting officer, which many thought was unconstitutional.
Another clause was directed to warning, "The Sign does not obstruct or impair vision or traffic in any manner, create a hazard or disturbance to the health and welfare of the general public, as determined by the Zoning Administrator." Ted and I wondered about the possibility that the officer might decide that the fact that people in passing vehicles liked to look at the sign and honk their horns could be turned into an accusation that the sign was a traffic hazard.
Another clause seemed to have been written without any conception of the constitutional protection for free speech:
"All signs shall be directly related to a lawful use of the premises. No sign shall be permitted anywhere any time, in the Town of Warrensburg which, by varying the size of the print, by wording, by coloration or any other device, gives a normal viewer a false or deceptive impression of the specific purpose of the Sign. The Zoning Administrator shall have discretion to determine whether a Sign creates such a false or deceptive impression."
We were concerned about how this clause would have been implemented in relation to the "NO APA" symbol with the PRFA web site URL.
The public hearing at the town hall on December 28 drew such a big crowd that the area behind the seating was lined with standees along the back of the meeting room and out into the vestibule. With the town supervisor Kevin Geraghty absent, the deputy supervisor Joseph Barlow presided over the hearing, which soon began.
The speakers vehemently opposed the sign ordinance. The first person at the microphone was Jerry Quintel, the former town supervisor. He engaged the attention of the audience with a short report. A successful Warrensburg businessman, he had surveyed the businesses along Main Street and found that, of the 44 businesses, forty were in violation of the proposed sign ordinance. He said, "I want a coalition between the town and businessman that will sit down and write an ordinance that will help the town, not hinder the town."
"We're getting mandated to death with the APA," he said. "We need a new boundary, outside the APA." He added, "We should ask the people, not tell the people The more restrictions you put on us, the less business that you're gonna have coming into town."
Ted Galusha was second. His thorough analysis in opposition to the sign ordinance reached a pitch when he announced,
"If you pass this law, I promise you that I will be part of a group of people and organizations that will sue this town and all the members of this board individually. You will accomplish one thing; I will sell my house and move to another town because I wouldn't want to be a taxpayer in this town when we're done with you!"
When my turn came, I pointed out that I was a resident of neighboring Stony Creek, where the Property Rights Foundation of America is based. "I am indebted to Ted Galusha for his generous display of the URL of our web site, www.prfamerica.org, in clear letters on the popular outdoor wall design on the north side of his house up on Route 9. Our URL is part of Ted's design, which announces 'NO APA,'" I said.
"It appears that the proposed law is designed to make the display on Ted Galusha's house illegal by denoting the display as a sign and making it impossible for the display to conform. This is a classical instance of selective legislation and infringement on free speech," I said.
Continuing, I said, "The issue is more than Warrensburg. The town likes to call Warrensburg 'The Gateway to the Adirondacks.' Traveling people should be alerted that government may not be all goodness and light within the Adirondacks."
"The inspiring display of a 'NO APA' symbol emblazoned on the side of Ted Galusha's house gives comfort to many people. It helps restore hope that the day will come when the dreaded, hated Adirondack Park Agency will be no more," I said. I objected to a sign ordinance that stops protest against the APA, because it undercuts our freedom of speech.
Carol Birkholz, a Warrensburg resident and chair of the Warren County Conservative Party, gave a statement about the court precedents that established that the proposed sign ordinance was an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of speech. She pointed to a 1994 ruling, City of Ladue v. Gilleo, where the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the sign ordinance of a Missouri city that prohibited signs at private residences. Quoting the decision, she read:
"Displaying a sign from one's own residence often carries a message quite different from placing the sign someplace else, or conveying the same text or picture by other means Residential signs are an unusually cheap and convenient form of communication. Especially for persons of modest means or limited mobility, a yard or window sign may have no practical substitute. Even for the affluent, the added costs in money or time of taking out a newspaper advertisement, handing out leaflets on the street, or standing in front of one's house with a handheld sign may make the difference between participating and not participating in some public debate."
One of the effective short statements that followed Ms. Birkholz's powerful speech was a brief comment by George Nemec, the owner of a sports shop and farm and garden center on Route 9. He said, "The intent of the sign ordinance wasn't meant to hinder business. Unfortunately, it did. We have a drive-through community. We need signs."
He pointed to the dimensions of the signs at his establishment, by comparison to the thinking of the drafters of the ordinance. "People who write this don't even know what the sizes are! Our letters are two feet high."
After illustrating his use of signs further, Mr. Nemec declared, "A pile of mulch, a tentwe're selling that. That's my sign." Concluding his remarks, he used an aphorism, "A business with no sign is a sign of no business."
After a number of other remarks by individuals who came up to the microphone to express their opposition, the public hearing was over and the town board conducted other business. At the end of the meeting, Councilman Austin Markey, whom the other councilmen had castigated for criticizing their actions in the local newspaper, made a motion to hold off on the sign law until a coalition of businesses would get to work on it. The motion was passed unanimously. Ted Galusha's big "NO APA" sign with the PRFA web site URL on the bottom wouldn't be declared illegal just yet.
Carol W. LaGrasse - January 2007