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Clarify the message

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Free speech has returned to the town of Watertown.

Well, sort of.

Robert J. Comenole ended his dispute with the town’s Planning Board this week over his attempts to display signs on his father’s property with specific messages. On Monday, he agreed to limit the size and number of his signs, and Planning Board members ruled he doesn’t need a permit.

This brings to a close a disagreement between Mr. Comenole and town officials over the manner that yard signs have been regulated. Earlier this year, he wanted to post a sign expressing his displeasure with the work done on his father’s home by a contractor.

Mr. Comenole initially sought a permit for an 8-by-6-foot sign, a request that was rejected by the Planning Board. He then requested a variance from the town’s statute concerning signs, but the Zoning Board of Appeals turned him down. He then went before the Town Council to plead his case but was again rebuffed.

The town’s regulations on signs are ambiguous. It’s been reported several times in the Watertown Daily Times that “on-premise signs [must] be limited to displaying the wording and graphics of a business, its principal service or purpose, its address and its phone number.” This would indicate that if a sign conveyed anything other than this specific information pertaining to businesses, it wouldn’t be allowed.

But this isn’t necessarily so. It’s also been reported that 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.”

Town Supervisor Joel R. Bartlett said, “Those are fine temporary signs. … Banners of that type aren’t permanently left out.”

So how do town officials determine which signs are acceptable and which ones are not? The problem here all along has been that they leave too much to their own discretion, and Mr. Comenole was correct to point out that this infringes on the First Amendment rights of constituents

There is no doubt that having huge signs displayed on a neighbor’s front yard can be annoying. Community leaders across the country have made a cottage industry out of regulating what other people can do with their homes.

To use government power to control the aesthetics of someone else’s property, however, is not appropriate. It’s reasonable to set rules restricting what can be done at homes when such activity could harm someone else (pedestrians can’t see oncoming cars because of an obstruction) or impact other property (stormwater runoff floods an adjacent home because a lot isn’t properly absorbing the water).

But property rights and freedom of expression serve as the foundation of our society, and they must be upheld. Just as we want others to respect our liberties, we must acknowledge those of our neighbors.

It’s good that Mr. Comenole reached an accommodation with the Planning Board. But town officials must revise their sign ordinance to clarify vague points and ensure it protects the constitutional rights of residents. The message of this story is clear: To leave so much up to the subjective judgments of municipal leaders is abuse just waiting to occur.

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