Palm Coast government bans almost all temporary signs from skewering rights of way, medians, utility posts and the like. But periodically, and especially, either when local realtors again press the issue–they tend to benefit most from signs–or the Palm Coast City Council has new members, the push to loosen the sign rules reemerges.
It did so again Tuesday, with newly-elected Council member Ed Danko proposing a reconsideration of the sign ordinance and Mayor Milissa Holland pushing back.
“We have revisited this open house policy since the city was incorporated in 1999,” Holland said.
Realtors want to plant open house signs to push sales. Some elected officials want to help them in the name of supporting local business. But it comes down to this: if Palm Coast (or any local government) were to allow realtors’ open house signs, it would have to allow signs from anyone else–any company, any private concern, any religious, political or extremist organization. Palm Coast hasn’t wanted to risk that snake pit, both because it could turn rights of way into jungles of clutter and because if it were to act against signs perceived to be inappropriate, it could invite a lawsuit. Banning them all takes care of both issues. (See the city’s complete sign ordinance here.)
“I am not in favor of even going down this path,” Holland said categorically, recalling how Jacksonville came close to doing so until case law changed and stopped the city from moving ahead with a more permissive ordinance.
Bill Reischmann, the city attorney, reminded the council of the Supreme Court decision six years ago that put the matter to rest. Reischmann had given the council a similar briefing on the Reed v. Town Gilbert decision in July 2015, though every member of that council has long been gone.
“If we were to adopt specific rules that apply just to realty type, or open house for for sale signs, that would be in violation of the Gilbert case,” Reischmann said. “It it is confusing because that decision that came out that I’m referring to was a change, it was a substantial change in the state of the law in the United States of America. Because before that, the standard operating procedure for regulation of temporary signs is, you could make the distinction, based upon practical and real world differences between different temporary signs. But we’re not allowed to do that anymore. And when I say ‘we,’ I don’t mean just the city of Palm Coast. I mean any local government. We can regulate the size of the signs. We can regulate how long they’re out there. We can regulate where they’re located. We can do this based on fundamental aesthetics and other public safety and legitimate public concerns. But we can’t regulate them based on content.”
Other local governments have gone the other way, as in Clay County, allowing all signs. Holland recalled speaking with a former legislator from there. “Palm Coast has done it right, I would move here from Clay County,” the legislator told her. She quoted him: “‘I drive out of my beautiful neighborhood, and I drive by a convenience store and they have smoke shops that’–I mean, they have so many signs he said it takes away from the whole character of a neighborhood. ‘How did you guys do this?’ and I said, you know, we do for one we do for all, we cannot regulate content, so I’m just not interested in going down this path, due to the ruling.”
Danko wasn’t convinced. “I understand your point, Madam Mayor,” he said. “But we’re a changing community. And I think we need to visit this whole signage issue. And assume it includes work vehicles too.”
Holland stopped him at mention of signage on commercial vehicles, another very sensitive issue in the city that has periodically drawn intense criticism from labor groups and small businesses: the city forbids work vans with commercial signage to be parked for extended periods in residential driveways. The Gilbert decision does not address that issue directly, though its same principle applies: a government could not allow some type of verbiage on vehicles but not others, so the city bans them all (vans may be parked in driveways overnight as long as they’re covered by a tarp.)
The council subsequently discussed the matter of work vans separately, and more permissively. (See the details: “In a ‘Big Shift,’ Palm Coast Will Survey Residents On Relaxing Commercial Vehicle-Ban in Driveways.”)
But Danko wants to reconsider it all. “I think we probably need to have a broader discussion that includes being part of being business friendly, and we need to discuss the way we need to change things or not,” Danko said. “All the signages things, it’s not just the real estate agents. It would be on open house signs, it would be anything I guess. We’d open up that Pandora’s box is what you’re saying. But I do think we need to have that discussion, because we do have people with work vehicles, businesses and stuff, and that’s signage, too.”
Reischmann cautioned against mixing signage issues with parking regulations. Signs on vehicles are regulated by the parking ordinance. “We have a sign code. And we have parking regulations,” Reischmann said. “Those are two different sets of policy decisions that this or a prior Council has adopted, and it is of course up to this council whether they wish to revisit.” If the city were to revisit the commercial vehicle-signage issue, the attorney said, “the issue then would be, what type of leeway and what would be the impact of the sign regulations on our ability to categorize vehicles as business versus personal.” But reconsidering the parking ordinance would not force revisiting the signage ordinance, he said.
And Danko’s push may yet be one more effort in vain: he is almost certain to have one other vote to change the commercial-vehicle sign ordinance–that of Victor Barbosa, the council member who only recently came close to being dragged before the city’s code enforcement board over violations of that exact ordinance. Barbosa has spoken publicly, on his Facebook page, about wanting to repeal the restriction, though he was curiously silent during the discussion on signs Tuesday. If Barbosa were to join Danko on the matter, his and Danko’s would appear to be the only two votes for reconsideration.
Holland’s position is clear. Council member Eddie Branquinho, who has been styling his policy approaches on those of former Mayor Jon Netts–who was the city’s neat freak–said “basically, it’s case law.” Case law that he says hurts his own pocketbook: Branquinho’s wife is a Realtor. “Some of her signs that were illegally placed, they’re gone,” he said. “She’s paying for it, and when she’s paying for it, I’m paying for it. Meanwhile, hey, that’s the law, I’m fine with it.”
And Council member Nick Klufas made his position clear.
“Part of the allure and the beauty of Palm Coast is the minimal signage that we allow,” Klufas said. “Although previous discussions have brought up the points of it being business unfriendly, in my personal experience, it’s honestly very rare that a business has reached out to me, or an individual, and said that this lack of signage is preventing them from being able to conduct their businesses appropriately. The real estate open house signs, I understand is an issue, but every time that I’ve been approached by, for instance, the HBA,” the Home Builders Association, “about trying to find a middle ground, I always fall back to the same type of conversation which we just had where, if you have to read the content of the site to make a decision, whether or not it’ll be allowed in the community–you can’t do that. And I think for the greater good, it falls in my opinion into the school of thought where, if we don’t allow any of these signs, we avoid all of the issues that come along with that, and we also keep the beauty and allure of Palm Coast alive. A lot of the individuals I speak to, honestly, the 99.9 percent majority I speak to of people move here for that beauty and very, very, very rarely have I ever met anyone who’s willing to compromise that, since that was part of the deal when they moved into Palm Coast.”
The discussion did seem to modulate Danko’s approach. “I understand,” he said. “I’ve heard from neighbors that want to have garage sales, they’d like to be able to do the same thing. But you’re right, we can’t. Once we open the door, we can’t limit the content, we’re opening it up to everybody.”
“So I think we’ve made that very clear,” Holland said, presumably ending the latest push to chance the city’s sign ordinance–at least for the next few years.