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Milton plans to revise signage rules

Changes come in wake of free speech lawsuit
There’s a new set of signs at Penny Nickerson’s house on Union Street in Milton. Nickerson, with support from the ACLU of Delaware, filed a lawsuit against the town in May, stating town regulations regarding political signs violated her right to free speech. MADDY LAURIA PHOTO
July 14, 2017

Milton officials plan to revise rules regarding yard signs after a lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of current regulations.

Following an executive session discussion July 3, Milton's mayor and council publicly introduced two ordinances that would remove reference to political signs in town zoning code. Instead of regulating political signs, the town would replace that category with general rules for temporary signs.

The new rules would allow property owners to place up to three temporary signs year-round, regardless of content, explained Town Solicitor Seth Thompson. Those signs would be subject to size, location and non-illumination restrictions.

Residents would be permitted additional temporary signs during an election or referendum, one for each race, Thompson said.

Previously, political signs were permitted only 90 days before an election or referendum, and two weeks after. Code enforcement officers used this zoning regulation to ask Milton resident Penny Nickerson to remove several signs from her front yard on Union Street in February. That prompted Nickerson to contact the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware and sue the town for violating her right to free speech.

Nickerson posted several signs reading “Love Trumps Hate,” “Women's Rights = Human Rights,” and other similar sentiments following the presidential election. In the lawsuit, Nickerson said she was asked to remove the signs, she complied, and also tried to meet with town officials to explain why she believed her constitutional right to free speech was violated. Her meeting request was denied.

The lawsuit originally filed in Chancery Court was moved to federal court in mid-May, and Nickerson replaced her front yard signs with new messages such as “Words Matter” and “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” a quote from Voltaire.

“I applaud Mrs. Nickerson's perseverance in bringing to the town's attention any deficiencies in our existing sign ordinance,” Milton Mayor Ted Kanakos said in a phone interview.

Thompson said the town is working with Nickerson and the ACLU on a resolution to the suit.

The proposed ordinance introduced earlier this month would allow residents to have freestanding signs up to six square feet, and placed at least 25 feet away from any intersection. No permit would be required.

The new rules also allow businesses to erect signs with non-business messages instead of commercial-oriented signs. The purpose of the substitution is to prevent any inadvertent favoring of a commercial message over a noncommercial message, the ordinance states.

Members of the public attending the July 3 meeting left, as required, when the executive session began around 8:30 p.m. Councilman Emory West said no one returned for the sign ordinance discussion.

Kanakos said this was the first time he recalled public business discussed at the end of a meeting and after an executive session. He said the reason was executive session discussions – which are not open to the public – were related to the proposed ordinances.

“Regardless of the number of signs you put out, you have a right to put out signs,” Kanakos said. “I think the only thing the town can do is expect a reasonable number. I'm all for people putting up signs as long as it's within the parameters of any ordinance on the books.”

Milton Planning and Zoning Commission will review the ordinances and write an advisory opinion during a meeting at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, July 18, at the Milton library. Officials will hold a public hearing on the proposed zoning changes at 6:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 11, at the Milton library. For more, go to milton.delaware.gov or call 302-684-4110.