West Oakland County residents know all about the annual bloom of orange road construction barrels during the summertime and the headaches that causes, but some lakes area residents can also expect the proliferation of political signage at least every other summer, as well. As such, many local communities have rules on the books governing where and when campaign signs can be erected, as well as how large they can be.
That doesn’t always sit well with some. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, for example, has often challenged the constitutionality of some municipalities’ — including the city of Troy and the city of Clawson here in Oakland County — political sign ordinances, citing First Amendment rights.
Michael J. Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, said it really boils down to fairness in rules governing speech.
“(A unit of government) may implement reasonable restrictions on speech, including political signs, but it certainly may not treat commercial speech more favorably than political speech,” he said. “That’s what we see in the ordinances in many municipalities throughout the state, ordinances that treat commercial speech more favorably than political speech.”
“Let’s say a city says to its residents that they cannot put out a political sign 45 days before an election,” said Rana Elmir, the ACLU of Michigan’s communications director. “That would be unconstitutional for many reasons, but also because generally they don’t have those same restrictions for commercial speech.”
Steinberg said that, although the ACLU of Michigan has fought and won legal cases challenging the constitutionality of some political sign ordinances, many still exist on the books today — including some in west Oakland County.
As for communities — such as Wayne County’s Redford Township, which recently received a letter from the ACLU of Michigan challenging its sign ordinance on behalf of a political candidate for office — that have political sign rules that restrict when signs can be erected, such as 30 or 45 days before an election?
“They are lucky that they don’t get sued,” Steinberg said. “City councils and city attorneys would be well advised to amend their ordinances so that they don’t violate the free speech rights of residents in their community.
“I think it’s odd that cities typically provide more protection to Halloween decorations than they do to political signs,” Steinberg added. “If you walk around in the neighborhood leading up to a November election, you will see Halloween decorations all over the yards of people throughout Michigan. Some people think that these decorations and tombstones and spiders and whatnot are ugly, yet there’s no ordinance regulating them. Yet, if somebody wants to put up a 6-square-foot sign or put up several signs, all of the sudden the city is cracking down on political signs, and that shouldn’t happen in a democracy.”
Steinberg noted that “certain reasonable restrictions” on campaign signage exist, but if they are put into place, there must be a level of parity between the rules that govern political speech and the rules that govern commercial speech.
What follows is a rundown of the rules lakes area communities have in place for political signs.
WHITE LAKE TOWNSHIP
While political signs have been popping up like daisies in White Lake Township, the township is mainly leaving them alone until after the election.
“The general attitude is that we aren’t going to be touching any,” said township Clerk Terry Lilley. “There’s only a couple of weeks left (until the primary election).”
Political signs are cited in the township’s sign ordinance, and as such there are specific rules and regulations for them: Any such sign advertising for a candidate for political office or advocating a position on a ballot proposal can’t be erected more than 45 days prior to a primary election and must be removed within five days after the election.
Temporary political signs cannot be illuminated and may only be placed on private property with the permission of the property owner.
Signs cannot not have a surface area of more than 16 square feet per sign as measured on one side of a two-sided sign.
No sign shall be more than 6 feet above the average grade of the front lot line.
Political signs are considered temporary signs under Highland Township’s sign ordnance.
They are permitted provided they are not located within or hang over any road, pedestrian, or public right-of-way. They also cannot be erected in any manner that would present a traffic hazard or public safety issue.
The ordinance outlines a few other stipulations that must be met with regard to sign size, height, and the location of temporary signs.
The total sign area of all temporary signs on any one site cannot exceed 12 feet, and the maximum height is 3 feet for a freestanding sign.
Campaign signs cannot be located closer than 15 feet from the edge of the traveled portion of a roadway and cannot be placed in a manner that creates a hazard of any kind.
Temporary signs also may not be placed on a public sidewalk.
The permission of the property owner where the sign is placed must be secured before the sign is erected or placed there.
Each temporary sign is to be removed at the the end of the event, party, sale, or lease based upon the purpose of the sign.
According to Highland Clerk Mary McDonell, the Township Hall has received some complaints about political signs but unless they are “horrendous and impairing the sight of drivers,” the township isn’t removing them or enforcing the rules.
“There has been some grumbling, but we really can’t control all of it,” McDonell.
Staff in the Commerce Township Clerk’s Office said the township has received some complaints over political signs, but also said the township can’t do anything about them because Commerce doesn’t have an ordinance addressing political signs.
Waterford Township exempts temporary election signs from the obligation to meet design and structural requirements; from application, permit and inspection requirements; and from other requirements. Unlike other signs in the township, including other types of temporary signs, election signs are not intended to be displayed on a permanent basis. There is no time limit for their installation or removal.
“Our ordinance was amended in March 2010 and our legal staff put a lot of time into state and national rulings on this,” said Waterford Code Enforcement Officer Patrick Ogg. “There is no time limit when they can be put up — they could be up all year, but most people won’t do that. There is also no time limit to take them down. They could stay up until they’re in disrepair.”
All election signs must be erected on private property. The placement or erection of election signs within a public rights-of-way is strictly prohibited, and election signs cannot be located on township-owned property.
“We do sign sweeps two times a week,” Ogg said. “Those election signs in the road right-of-way are confiscated and placed in our storage yard, but individuals have the ability to pick them up.”
No election sign can be placed closer than 20 feet from a roadway.
“They can’t be closer than 20 feet from the curb, edge of the blacktop, or whichever is the farthest; on dirt roads, it’s 20 feet from the improved surface,” Ogg said.
On corner lots, signs can be placed no closer than 25 feet from the roadway.
“The amended ordinance gives them a break, and it’s more consistent for us to control and for the individual to carry out,” Ogg said.”People take their positions and elections seriously. It’s also a financial issue. Signs are expensive and the volunteers take a lot of time to put them up, so any time one is removed it can be taken personally.”
Typical complaints include that there are too many political signs on one lot or that they are placed in the road right-of-way, in violation of the township rules.
“Complaints could be (lodged) by a citizen who doesn’t like signage or one candidate against another,” Ogg said. “We had one person who complained about five to seven locations, and a couple other complaints.”
Ogg said last week that of the 35 signs improperly placed in the township and collected, 18 were political.
In residential zoning districts, each political sign is limited to a maximum of 6 square feet in area and 4 feet in height.
In non-residential zoning districts, election signs are limited to one sign of a maximum of 32 square feet in area and 8 feet in height.
Only one additional sign per candidate and ballot issue per zoning lot is allowed at a maximum of 6 square feet in area and 4 feet in height.
Code enforcement removes elections signs if they are not in compliance with the ordinance provisions. For residential properties, the department merely informs the property owners of the rules.
All signs not retrieved after being confiscated and held in the township storage yard within 15 days after an election are discarded.
Political campaign signs are permitted in all districts in the city and may be freestanding or hung on walls. The maximum size allowed is 32 square feet, and height is capped at 10 feet. No limit has been established on the number of signs allowed on each parcel.
Signs may be placed 30 days prior to an election and must be removed 10 days following the election.
“Even though there’s no limit (on the number of signs), there is still control in the ordinance,” said Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Rondeau.
So far the city has not received any complaints this year, unlike in years past.
“One year someone was running for judge and put up a 4-by-8 banner on a curb,” Rondeau said. “I took it down and the individual got very upset. This year, so far, we haven’t had any issues.”
Wixom allows political signage in all zoning districts. The maximum size is 16 square feet per side. Signs may be located on public property, but not in a road right-of-way and not within 5 feet of the traveled portion of a road.
Political signs may not be posted any more than 60 days prior to an election and must be removed no more than 14 days after the election.
Wixom City Clerk Cathy Buck said there were no complaints lodged by city residents about political signage during the last election cycle, nor have there been any lodged so far this year.
Wolverine Lake also enforces political signage restrictions as part of its sign ordinance.
Temporary political signs may be erected on private property. The person or organization responsible for installing or distributing such signage must remove them within 14 days after the primary or special elections to which they pertain — unless the signs continue to be pertinent to a general election held within 90 days, after which they must be removed within 14 days.
“The ordinance is enforced by our code enforcement officer,” said Village Manager Sharon Miller.
No political sign can exceed 20 square feet in area or 5 feet in length, except in residential districts. In those areas no political sign can exceed 10 square feet in area, 3 feet in height, and 5 feet in length. A maximum of seven signs may be placed on a building or on a zoning lot.
“We haven’t had any complaints yet, but signs are just starting to crop up,” Miller said.
Orchard Lake’s temporary sign ordinance states that election signs are permitted in all zoning districts within the city. The maximum size is 16 square feet per sign, which must be no more than 5 feet tall.
“We’ve had some complaints about signs being too large,” said Director of City Services Gerry McCallum. “There was one sign on the commercial side of town where we had to contact the individual. He replaced it with a smaller sign in conformance with the ordinance.”
Political signs are permitted to remain up until 14 days following an election, except for successful primary candidates that are certified to move on to the general election ballot.
“We absolutely enforce this ordinance,” McCallum said. “We redid this ordinance five to six years ago because it wasn’t as consistent as it is now.”
Temporary signs are required to be a minimum of 10 feet from the traveled portion of a road and permission for placement must be obtained from the owner of property abutting the road.
“We’ve also had complaints about setbacks and some signs creeping out toward the road, so our police or myself remove them and keep them at the city,” McCallum said. “The point is to inform the individual and make them comply, but if there isn’t any phone number on the signage, we won’t put in the effort to inform them and (will) just keep them at the city.”
On a street corner, two signs are permitted, one facing each street. Lakefront lots are also limited to two signs, one facing the road and one facing the lake.
One sign is permitted for each access road into a development, provided that such signs are spaced at least 500 feet apart.
No signs are permitted to be installed in or project into a public right-of-way.
Temporary window signs that are faded, yellowed, ripped or show any damage will be removed immediately.
WEST BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP
West Bloomfield Township has an ordinance geared specifically toward political signs.
The faces of signs are required to not be more than 6 square feet in area, per face, with a maximum of two faces and no more than 3 feet in height, according to the ordinance.
In non-residential districts, the faces of signs can’t be more than 32 square feet in area, per face, with a maximum of two faces and no more than 6 feet in height.
The ordinance also states that “there shall be no illumination of political-election signs unless application is made and a permit is issued for any electrical materials and components.”
Also, no election signs are permitted within the triangular area formed at the intersection of any street right-of-way lines by a straight line drawn between the right-of-way lines at a distance along each line of 25 feet from their point of intersection.
All political signs also must be located outside of all road rights-of-way. If the right-of-way cannot be determined, then the signs must be located at least 20 feet from the edge of the curb or traveled portion of the road.
The ordinance also states that no political sign will be located on township-owned property or attached to any utility pole, tree, or other structure located within a right of- way.
An election sign may be displayed in the window of a principal building.
All election signs also must be removed 10 days following the election for which the sign has been displayed, according to the ordinance.
Code Enforcement Supervisor Eric Beauchamp said the ordinance is actively enforced and that any complaints the Code Enforcement Department receives are typically from candidates for elected office when they complain that their signs are being picked up. Some are also received from residents concerned about blight.
Beauchamp said that signs are usually picked up for being in a road’s right-of-way, but the department has not issued any tickets for a violation of the ordinance.
“We’ve picked up some political signs,” Beauchamp said.
Milford Township’s ordinance regarding signage doesn’t have a section geared specifically toward political signs, but does state that “political signs promoting political parties, candidates, or proposals shall be permitted within any zoning district for a maximum of 10 days after the election.
“Signs in residentially zoned areas shall not exceed 32 square feet in total for all signs so provided on each zoning lot,” the ordinance states.
Township Building Official Timothy Brandt said that the township has usually stayed away from political sign enforcement and said that people can have signs close to a road’s edge.
“We don’t typically take down signs in the road’s right-of-way,” Brandt said. “We really have no complaints.”
Milford Village’s sign ordinance mentions political signage in its temporary signs section, permitting “non-illuminated temporary signs promoting political parties, candidates, or proposals, so long as such signs are removed within three days after the completion of election activities.”
Signs in residential areas are limited to 6 square feet; signs in non-residential districts are capped at 32 square feet.
Milford Village Clerk Debbie Schultz said that the village has an ordinance officer out every weekday and sometimes on Saturdays. She added that signs can only be on private property and cannot be in a road’s right-of-way or on village-owned property.
“When people come in asking about when they can post political signs, I try to tell them to hold off as long as possible because we don’t want them up in May for a primary election,” Schultz said.
John Crete of the Milford Village Ordinance Enforcement Bureau said that the bureau hasn’t seen any violations yet this election cycle.
Staff writers Angela Niemi and Michael Shelton, and Assistant Editor Kirk Pinho contributed to this report.