- June 11, 2018
“Signs, signs, everywhere a sign.”
Town Attorney Maggie Mooney-Portale says she has that lyric from the 1970 song “Signs” from Five Man Electrical Band stuck in her head as she spends the summer trying to determine how much damage a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling did to a sign ordinance that’s had its share of controversy over the years.
Mooney-Portale notified the Longboat Key Town Commission in a July 16 email that a Supreme Court ruling rendered June 18 requires sign code changes in municipalities throughout the country.
In a decision titled “Reed vs. the Town of Gilbert,” the Supreme Court overturned the sign code of the town of Gilbert, Texas, on First Amendment grounds, ruling that content-based regulations for signs are unconstitutional.
The decision came after more than 10 years of legal fighting between town officials and a church that sued the town based on free speech rights in regard to directional signs it posted every Sunday alerting parishioners to service times and other information.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty to what the ruling and the opinion rendered means,” Mooney-Portale said. “But what it seems to mean is content-based regulations are unconstitutional.”
For Longboat Key, which has strict regulations on everything from banner signs to the placement of signs, the ruling may force the town to loosen its rules.
The town and many other communities currently regulate what can be placed on signs like banners and temporary signs. The town currently requires organizations to pay a fee to put up signs for everything from rummage sales to the announcement of the Longboat Key Garden Club’s Home Tour and other Key events.
Although the town can still regulate sizes and even the number of colors allowed on signs, it appears the ruling means the town can no longer regulate or control the content placed on the signs.
“Our sign code will be substantially revised because we have strong regulations regarding content,” said Town Manager Dave Bullock.
For example, Bullock points out that the code states that banner signs can only be used for special events.
“That’s a problem moving forward,” Bullock said. “We can ban banner signs, but we can’t regulate the content of them or what they can be used for.”
It’s not the first time there’s been an issue with the town’s sign code and what some perceive as regulations that are too strict.
In July 2009, the code enforcement department alerted a Longbeach Village family that a sign they placed in the right of way on Broadway to support their granddaughter’s brain injuries titled “Pray for Libby,” violated the sign code. The code limits signage on residential streets to real estate signs only.
And because that sign was placed in the right of way, it required immediate removal.
But a day after the violation was cited, the department found a loophole in the code that allowed it to stay up for another 24 hours because a banner sign is allowed to be displayed for 24 hours for a celebratory purpose.
And over the years, plaza owners have been cited for banner signs that announced an upcoming fair or other event on their sites. That restriction is also likely to change.
Bullock points out the town’s sign code “is pretty typical of many communities.”
“Everyone is grappling with this,” Bullock said. “We’ll make substantial revisions to the ordinance.”
“Everyone is grappling with this. We’ll make substantial revisions to the (sign code) ordinance.”
— Town Manager Dave Bullock
Mooney-Portale is creating a memo for the Longboat Key Town Commission this summer that commissioners will review in the fall before giving staff direction on sign ordinance changes. Mooney-Portale will also offer advice this fall on what changes are needed.