Story by Leslie Boyd
If you think the political season started earlier this year, you might be right.
Political campaign signs, usually prohibited until 30 days before an election, started springing up last week, a week before the legal date. But don’t expect the city to write any citations. A letter from the City Manager’s office went out last week to all City Council candidates, explaining that legal changes to this rule are in the works.
“We are in the process of revising our sign ordinance, including the provisions relating to political signs,” the letter reads. “As a result, staff has consulted and has decided that the city will allow candidates to post political yard signs now, rather than wait for Aug. 24.”
The reason for the change, says Shannon Tuch, principal planning and zoning administrator for the city, is a Supreme Court decision that was handed down in June, Reed v. The Town of Gilbert, saying signs cannot be regulated according to content.
“If the regulations say you have to read a sign to decide whether it’s legal, you can’t do it,” Tuch said. “We can still regulate size, placement, etc., but all signs within a category have to have the same regulations.”
Political signs are part of a category called special-purpose signs, along with real estate and other temporary signs. Since this is a federal mandate, the state also will have to rewrite its regulations, Tuch said.
Other regulations for these signs still stand: They must be at least 3 feet from the roadway and permission must be obtained from property owners before signs are placed. Signs can’t obscure drivers’ views at intersections and must not be more than 42 inches high or larger than 864 square inches. They can’t obscure other signs.
In Asheville, a few candidates placed their signs early; others decided to wait until the traditional 30-day mark.
“My signs won’t even be ready until Friday,” said City Council candidate John Miall, who ordered 250 signs. “I put them out even though they’re expensive. They’re my No. 1 expense this year.”
City Councilman Cecil Bothwell, who has decided to run for Buncombe County Commission this year, says he also plans to wait 30 days before early voting starts. “I don’t think I’ll encourage people to put them out more than a month beforehand because, c’mon, they’re an eyesore,” he said.
So why litter the roads with political signs?
“That is the $64,000 question,” said Jake Quinn, longtime volunteer in the Buncombe County Democratic Party and current member of the Democratic National Committee. “I hate yard signs.”
But in local elections, where people might not see much about the candidates on television, signs help with name recognition, he said.
“People see a name enough and, even if they know few specifics about a candidate’s stand on the issues, they’ll vote for the name they know,” Quinn said. “So candidates put out signs.”
Miall said he also thinks signs in someone’s yard can sway their friends. “If I see a sign for John Miall in your yard, and I hold you in high esteem, it will influence me to look deeper,” he said.
Unfortunately, most of the signs can’t be recycled, except for the metal frames.
“We had years and years of accumulated signs at Democratic Headquarters,” Quinn said. “It took a massive, massive cleaning effort to get it all cleaned up and sent to the dump. All we could recycle was the metal.”
And if you think you want to clean up your street by getting rid of your neighbors’ political signs, think again. Among the regulations still in force are penalties for defacing, destroying or removing signs.