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Town may redraw sign restrictions

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/10/2021 8:58:04 AM
Modified: 8/10/2021 8:58:08 AM

NORWICH — Town officials plan to update Norwich’s sign regulations to better comply with a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits municipalities from treating signs differently because of their content.

The move follows a controversy earlier this year surrounding a Black Lives Matter banner that appeared at a private residence on Main Street.

Officials reviewing whether the banner conforms with Norwich’s regulations said it was “highly unlikely” they would survive a court challenge, leading at least one member of the town’s Selectboard to recommend changes.

Marcia Calloway, who was elected in March, wrote in a letter to her colleagues late last month that the town’s rules separating “non-advertising” signs from others “violate the strict scrutiny protections afforded under the First Amendment Freedom of Speech.”

“I request the board consider and address the need for immediate review and amendment of the Norwich bylaws, as necessary, to avoid such violations,” she said.

The Norwich Planning Commission will begin revising the town’s zoning regulations this fall, Rod Francis, Norwich’s planning director, said in an Aug. 4 memo drafted in response to Calloway’s concerns.

Its goal, he said, is to make Norwich’s sign regulations content-neutral, meaning they would apply to all signs regardless of their messaging.

Currently, the town’s rules require property owners to seek an outdoor sign permit except for those used for “directional, safety and public service purposes.”

But, Francis and Calloway argue, that mandate conflicts with a landmark First Amendment case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz.

In June of 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Good News Community Church of Gilbert, Ariz., saying the town violated the church’s free speech rights by attempting to regulate signs it used to advertise services.

The court also created a test for municipalities to follow: If a sign must be read to determine whether it’s in line with local ordinances, those regulations could violate the Constitution.

“The current land use regulations contain many conflicts with statute and case law,” Francis said in his memo, which was included in the Norwich’s Selectboard Aug. 11 meeting packet.

And while Francis said he and the town’s attorney were aware of the legal issues, they took a backseat as Norwich attempted to complete its town plan, a process that lasted from 2016 to 2020.

The planning director’s determination follows an April decision from the Norwich Development Review Board, which was called on in February to determine whether a Black Lives Matter banner displayed at a property along Main Street violated Norwich’s regulations.

The banner, at the home of Norwich Finance Committee member Omer Trajman, was the subject of a January complaint submitted by longtime resident Stuart Richards.

When Francis ruled that the banner is considered “non-advertising,” Richards appealed to the Development Review Board, setting off a two-month-long hearing process.

Richards said Monday that he has no problem with the sign’s message, saying it’s common for people to display Black Lives Matter signs in the Upper Valley.

However, he was worried about its size — it was hung between two trees — and how that could impact the surrounding landscape. In an interview, Richards defended the town’s sign regulations and others like it, comparing them to Vermont’s ban on billboards.

But the Development Review Board ultimately denied the appeal, saying Richards lives too far away and doesn’t have standing to bring the complaint, while also citing the content issues within Norwich’s zoning regulations. The treatment of some signs, the board said, could make the rules difficult to enforce in court.

Norwich isn’t alone in contending with the Supreme Court decision and its implications on zoning. Hanover and Lebanon were also confronted with free speech debates following the ruling.

In 2019, residents of Greensboro Road in Hanover were threatened with possible fines when they put up signs calling on the town to “Protect Our Residential Neighborhood.”

The signs, a protest of the Christ Redeemer Church’s plans to build a $5 million building on the street, violated the Hanover’s zoning ordinance, which requires signs in the town right of way to be licensed. After a debate about free speech, the town relented and allowed the signs to stay through the summer.

Meanwhile, Lebanon, attempting to head off problems with the decision, stripped content-based regulations from its zoning in 2016 and instituted temporary rules. But that led to the town removing signs, including those advertising charity events, from Colburn Park.

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




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