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Ron Fink: Supreme Court Decision Impacts Local Jurisdictions, Businesses

I don’t usually follow the actions of the Supreme Court of the United States, but a recent case has impacted my responsibilities as a planning commissioner in Lompoc

It is also important to all of Santa Barbara County, the state of California and every town in the United States.

The First Amendment of the Constitution is one of the most sacred of all laws; it allows us to say almost anything we want and is the reason that a free press exists. 

People express their views in many ways; letters to the editor, opinions and commentaries like this one and the most obvious are all those signs we see along the way as we travel.

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Some view signs as an invitation to visit a business, and others view signs as a way of expressing support or discontent with many issues of the day and still others view signs as a sign of urban blight.

When I was a young boy traveling by car with my family, signs were a way to pass many tedious hours as my dad navigated the family car through traffic. 

I remember one game we played on long trips that involved finding signs with letters to complete the alphabet — we always got stuck trying to find “Q’s”.

Then there were the Burma-Shave signs. They were catchy short jingles that were supposed to convince a person that their product was fun and using it could make you a genius in conversation.

At one point President Lyndon Johnson's wife Lady Bird tried to get all highway signs removed because she felt they blocked the view of the flowers — it looks like time has overcome her desire to preserve the view scape.

There are many types of signs. Some are attached to buildings. Some are free standing on poles like the “Hi Let’s Eat” sign on East Ocean Avenue in Lompoc or substantial bases like those that direct you into shopping centers, professional offices, and others are temporary and try to attract you to an event like a special sale, property for sale or lease and of course those irritating political signs that pop up every couple of years.

The Supreme Court case involves a preacher in the town of Gilbert, Ariz., whose flock met at a different location each week. In order to tell folks where services would be held the preacher would post temporary signs around town inviting people to his services.

The town’s zoning ordinance only allowed these types of signs to be displayed no longer than 12 hours before an event. Apparently the town felt that temporary directional signs were unsightly so they used this method to keep their town neat and orderly.

The preacher thought that this was too restrictive. If his services were to be held at 9 a.m. he couldn’t put up his signs until after dark the night before, and his flock wouldn’t know where to go the following morning, so he sued the town of Gilbert.

Eventually the case reached the highest judiciary level and the Justices found that the town's ordinance as it pertained to ideological, political and temporary directional signs was unconstitutional.

So, how does this effect the City of Lompoc and every other local government in the U.S.?

Every jurisdiction regulates signs, and all try to control the proliferation of temporary signs so that they don’t clutter up the town.

For example, the City of Santa Barbara defines temporary as a period of time not exceeding 30 consecutive days, unless otherwise specified in its sign ordinance. 

Within the ordinance, they exempt some content driven signs from the requirement to obtain a sign permit — these include Fiesta, Solstice, real estate, kiosk, informational commercial and announcements of official city holiday’s.

The City of Lompoc says, “All permits are good for the life of the sign except for permits for those signs which are expressly specified as temporary signs...”

Nearly every town in the US has similar provisions, but the Supreme Court found that “Because content-based laws target speech based on its commu­nicative content, they are presumptively unconstitutional and may be justified only if the government proves that they are narrowly tai­lored to serve compelling state interests.”

Now we all have a problem. Nearly every sign ordinance in the U.S. must now be modified to reflect this court decision. 

When I checked the town of Gilbert’s web site, the ordinance that was found unconstitutional was still posted on the site.

How will all this affect the plethora of temporary signs? It’s anyone’s guess, but thing is certain.

The attorneys are going to have their work cut out for them because the Supreme Court decision impacts local jurisdictions and businesses throughout the country

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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