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Hanover residents, town officials scuffle over roadside signs

  • Jeff Acker, of Hanover, N.H., checks his mail on Greensboro Road on Friday afternoon. He handed out 50 signs, placed by neighbors, to protest the construction of a proposed "mega church" across from his family's home in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. He says the proposed church has enough square footage to hold all the houses in the neighborhood. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • Jeff and Lara Acker, of Hanover, N.H., point to floor plans for a proposed church that they say could include nine classrooms, which leads them to worry that the building could be turned into a school in the future, in Hanover, N.H., on Aug. 9, 2019. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • Lara Acker, of Hanover, N.H., looks at a wall covered with photos of their five children. "This is why we're doing this," she said, explaining why they have put up signs protesting the building of a "mega church" across from their home in Hanover, N.H., on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. She grew up just down the street and moved back from San Francisco to live near her parents; she hopes one of their five children might one day live there also. (Rick Russell photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, August 10, 2019

HANOVER — Jeff Acker and his Greensboro Road neighbors had hoped to drum up support for their fight against a 21,250-square-foot church building proposed for their neighborhood when they planted about 50 signs protesting the development along roadways this spring.

Instead, the signs drew the attention of Town Hall, where officials accused the residents of violating Hanover’s zoning ordinance and threatened $275 fines for those unwilling to comply.

Hanover’s response to what Acker says is free speech shocked some and confused others on the block, he said, especially since residents had already moved signs out of the right of way and onto private property.

“The town appears to be, at many points along the way in this process, taking a very adversarial position against the neighborhood,” Acker said in an interview last week. “I ought to be allowed to put out my sign to make a political statement.”

Meanwhile, town officials contend Acker and his neighbors dragged their feet obtaining permission for the signs. All they had to do was send in a letter and get the OK of Hanover’s five-member Selectboard, Town Manager Julia Griffin said last week.

The monthslong spat over signs began in May as Greensboro Road neighbors fought against Christ Redeemer Church’s plans to build a $5 million church on the street.

Neighbors contend the new church, which could hold up to 400 people, would run counter to the neighborhood’s quiet, residential character.

Acker said he ordered about 50 signs saying “Protect Our Residential Neighborhood” and directing people to his blog on the church proceedings. They were purchased with the help of neighbors, distributed quickly and now dot the neighborhood near Route 120.

Having seen other lawn signs in town, Acker thought everything was fine. That was until he received an email on May 15.

“Hope all is well. Your signs have created a buzz around Hanover,” wrote Town Planner Cathryn Hembree. “Unfortunately, some of them are against the Town’s Zoning Ordinance.”

Hembree went on to say that Acker would either need to move the signs onto private property or ask for permission from the town’s Selectboard to keep them.

That email kicked off more than two months of back and forth messages in which Acker first told Hembree he will apply for permission. However, the conversation became more contentious as time dragged on, and Acker still hadn’t filled out the paperwork.

Initially, Hembree told Acker that the town would collect the signs itself, if the neighbors failed to remove them. But on July 15, she warned him that if the signs weren’t removed within 48 hours, each one left over could result in a $275 fine.

That resulted in Acker shooting back, arguing the signs were moved onto private property and questioning why the town would care about the Greensboro Road right of way, which is state-owned.

“I am not interested in a ‘pissing contest’ about signs, although, if pushed to it, some of my neighbors might be up for a fight,” he wrote to Hanover Planning and Zoning Director Robert Houseman on July 16. “But let’s avoid that if we can please?”

Things came to a head during Monday’s Selectboard meeting, when Acker and his wife, Lara, formally asked for the signs to remain.

“It makes me feel like a criminal. It’s really hard, and it feels like this adversarial thing,” Lara Acker told the Selectboard in a CATV video of the meeting. “It’s so hard for me because I feel like a criminal in my own town.”

The Selectboard ultimately granted the neighborhood permission to keep the signs up through September, but Acker contends that the matter is a free speech issue.

People across Hanover have Black Lives Matter, Trump 2020 and other political signs the town doesn’t interfere with, he said, wondering why his neighborhood was singled out.

Griffin, the town manager, said those signs are likely in violation of the zoning ordinance as well. But town officials don’t have enough time to drive around town in search of zoning violations.

Most problems arise either from complaints or an official noticing something amiss, she said. And in the case of Greensboro Road, there were several complaints against the signs, Griffin said.

Hanover’s sign rules aren’t intended to quell free speech, but rather to promote bike and pedestrian safety, Griffin said in an interview last week.

Signs in the town’s right of way are required to be licensed so that officials can record and collaborate on where they’ll be placed, she said. And the effort creates a paper trail for Hanover’s insurer in case a cyclist or pedestrian is injured by a sign.

Since Greensboro Road is a state road — and the New Hampshire Department of Transportation declined to license the signs — Griffin said Hanover’s actions were meant to provide some cover for Acker and his neighbors.

“We, as a town, are trying to be all things to all people here,” she said.

Acker said he intends to keep his word and the signs will be removed on Sept. 30. After time passes, people begin to ignore the messages, anyway, he said.

“We’re not interested in causing any heartache.” Acker said. “We’re not bomb tossers here.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.