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Watertown man’s landscaping nightmare turns into First Amendment crusade

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“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign,” marks the refrain of popular 1970 protest song criticizing society for restricting the freedom of expression of “long-haired freaky people,” aka “hippies.”

Forty-three years later, a self-described old hippie is fighting the town of Watertown for the right to erect his own large sign on the front lawn of a house owned by his father. Robert J. Comenole is a native of Watertown, though he has not lived here for many years.

After a brief Christmas trip home turned into the much more involved process of moving his aging father into a nursing home, Mr. Comenole, 55, set about fixing up his father’s house so he could sell it.

After laboring on a single room for three weeks with his nephew, Mr. Comenole decided it would be wise to hire some help.

Though pleased with the majority of the work performed at his father’s house, along the way he encountered a landscaping contractor who he said gave him some trouble.

Mr. Comenole said the man disappeared with more than $2,600 of his money, which he had been given as an advance payment for materials.

After the man refused to take his phone calls or answer a certified letter, Mr. Comenole decided to shame him by posting an 8-by-6-foot sign on his front yard detailing what he described as fraudulent and larcenous activity.

He left his lawn in semi-disarray to drive home the point that the contractor had not made good on his promises.

By Mr. Comenole’s estimation, 4,000 cars a day drove past the house, which is on Watertown Center Loop just behind Harby’s Hots restaurant. Some drivers would stop to take pictures of the sign; others would voice their support for Mr. Comenole’s project.

But eventually someone complained, and the town’s code enforcement officer told Mr. Comenole he would have to take the sign down.

Mr. Comenole complied but set about trying to find a way to make his point. He applied for a permit for a temporary sign but was turned down by the town Planning Board. He then applied for a zoning variance but was turned down by the Zoning Board of Appeals. Finally, he appeared before the Town Council, where he again was rebuffed.

With certain exceptions, town zoning law requires a property owner to obtain a permit to put up a sign.

In saying no to Mr. Comenole’s large sign criticizing the contractor, officials said they are simply abiding by the town’s zoning ordinance, which requires that on-premise signs be limited to displaying the wording and graphics of a business, its principal service or purpose, its address and its phone number.

But Mr. Comenole said they are trying to suppress his First Amendment rights.

He said he has had some preliminary discussions with attorneys interested in taking up his case, including lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Competitive Politics.

Town Supervisor Joel R. Bartlett said the town was not concerned about any legal action from Mr. Comenole on First Amendment grounds.

“The law is not unconstitutional. These types of ordinances have been tried and true in many communities. We don’t pass laws that are unconstitutional,” Mr. Bartlett said.

A permit is not required for certain types of temporary and permanent signs or symbols, such as real estate signs, campaign endorsements, roadside stand advertisements, flags and driveway signs.

But signs that say “God Bless America,” “We Support Our Troops” or “Welcome Home, Mike” are not addressed in the ordinance, Mr. Comenole is quick to point out.

“Those are fine temporary signs,” Mr. Bartlett said. “Banners of that type aren’t permanently left out.”

Mr. Bartlett acknowledged that the town’s ordinance has some gray areas.

“People always look for gray areas; that’s their role in life. The law can’t be perfect, but we make our decisions on what’s written,” he said.

Political yard signs have an extensive history in the legal realm, and while municipalities are able to limit signs in terms of their time, place or manner, courts repeatedly have struck down laws that discriminate based on content.

In City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court’s affirmation that a law prohibiting signs at residences was unconstitutional after Margaret Gilleo alleged that a Missouri city ordinance violated her free speech by prohibiting her from displaying a sign at her home saying, “For Peace in the Gulf.”

Barbara Croll Fought, an associate professor in communications law at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, said she is considering using Mr. Comenole’s case as a question on a test or for a classroom discussion.

While Ms. Fought acknowledged that Mr. Comenole’s original sign was certainly ripe for a defamation case brought by the landscaper, she said that people do a lot of things when they get angry and that people like Mr. Comenole help get unjust laws overturned.

After Mr. Comenole was turned down by the town Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Town Council, he changed his sign to read, “With these signs, on my own property (all these signs are banned by the Town of Wat’n) I hereby assert my right to free speech.”

To the left and the right of the large sign were several smaller signs inscribed with messages supporting first responders, veterans, the Humane Society, the fight against breast cancer, the walk to end Alzheimer’s, Stop Child Trafficking Now and, of course, the Constitution.

On Wednesday, the smaller signs were nowhere in sight, and the big sign was covered with a blue tarp.

Mr. Comenole said that he covered the sign before going out of town this weekend but that he probably would uncover it again before too long.

He has been issued a notice of violation. According to the town ordinance, any person found to be in violation of the local law is subject to a fine of $250 and/or imprisonment for no more than 15 days.

For now, he said, he will wait to see what action the town takes and gather documentation for a court case.

He said he views his stand as civil disobedience, adding that he admires pacifists and Quakers.

“I don’t take it personally, not with the town, but I am really offended that residents cannot exercise their First Amendment rights on their property,” Mr. Comenole said. “I would love to have a meeting with the town supervisor and attorney and come up with a fair sign ordinance that is proper and respectful but still lets people get their word out.”

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