Questions about property rights, eyesores stirred up by proposed codeMar 31, 2023 11:14AM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart
A proposed amendment to city code would have allowed temporary signs as large as 4’x 4-feet by 8’ 8-feet on fences like this one in Sandy. (Photo by Sarah Morton Taggart/City Journals)
Sandy City Councilmembers received more than 70 emails over one weekend from residents concerned about a seemingly uncontroversial agenda item: should a section of the Sandy Municipal Code be amended to allow temporary signs to be posted on fences in residential areas?
On March 7, the Sandy City Council voted 6-0 to not amend the code, maintaining the status quo. The code will continue to say that signs shall not be attached to utility poles, fences or trees.
“The law allows, and our own ordinances state, that we can and should take things like health, safety, welfare, equity, aesthetics, and property value preservation into consideration when we adopt policies and ordinances in Sandy,” said Councilmember Cyndi Sharkey. “We have a sign problem in Sandy. Our residents and neighbors have told us overwhelmingly that there are times when too many signs are out for too long, especially during municipal elections, and that our city looks trashy. They are also upset about the divisive political signage and speech that has assaulted our daily lives.”
Councilmember Marci Houseman agreed with the level of resident concern.
“By and large, the communication we've received has been about the more permanent nature of the signs,” Houseman said. “That's fundamentally what people are concerned about—these big signs, small signs, multiple small signs that make up a big sign, whatever it might be—if they're anchored to a fence, they're very likely going to stay up and that makes them more permanent and more of a concern to our residents.”
The code amendment was presented to the Planning Commission on Feb. 16 at the request of the administration. A positive recommendation was forwarded to the City Council and the amendment was presented as an informational item on Feb. 28. The presentation given by a zoning administrator stated that the amendment would remove restrictions on property rights and “simplify enforcement issues because it is currently impractical for effective enforcement… since the legal remedy of going to court typically takes longer than the temporary sign is posted.”
Councilmember Brooke D’Sousa questioned using the difficulty for enforcement as a rationale for amending the code.
“There have been some things that have come up in the last year that have been difficult to have compliance with, such as speeding and traffic infractions, and also compliance issues with our bulk waste program,” D’Sousa said. “And the administration has done a really good job at setting up an educational campaign to alert residents to these laws and that we are going to be tough on them. And I think that we've seen a lot more compliance. If we educate the residents about our laws and what we expect from them, I think this is one of those areas where that can play out, too.”
Freedom of speech was an issue brought up in resident comments. Several councilmembers agreed that the topic was resolved by the City Attorney on Feb. 28.
“It was made very clear that we are not currently violating anyone's first amendment rights,” Houseman said. “I need our community to understand that I am a stalwart conservative and I believe in the Constitution. If I felt in any way that we were about to do something that infringed on people's rights, I would run from it. I don't feel that is the case here.”
Councilmember Alison Stroud shared she had initially grappled with the property rights issues.
“But what it really comes down to is campaign season and elected officials,” Stroud said. “It seems that is really the focus: the behavior of candidates and not being responsible enough to clean up their own garbage.”
Stroud noted that she voted down a similar request by Monica Zoltanski to allow temporary signs on fences in April 2021. Zoltanski was a councilmember at the time and preparing to run for mayor. Councilmembers expressed concerns about amending an ordinance during an election year and the difficulty of imposing time limitations on political signs. The motion failed by a vote of 4-3.
Though the Planning Department did not specifically mention political signs in its February 2023 presentation to the council, the definition for a temporary sign in Sandy’s Municipal Code plainly lists political signs first, then “special events signs, special business promotions or portable signs.” The code also clarifies that a sign can be “a banner, pennant, valance or advertising display constructed of paper, cloth, canvas, fabric, cardboard, wall board or other materials, with or without frames, intended to be displayed in or out of doors for a short period of time.”
This specific section of code is included in the candidate information packet given to anyone running for office in Sandy, and candidates are asked not to violate the rules.
Though she had requested the proposed amendment, the mayor expressed a desire to table the issue when it was time for the council to vote on March 7.
“Last night the Sandy City Council elected not to approve the proposed updates to our city's sign ordinance,” Zoltanski said in a Facebook post on March 8. “Yet, after hearing from so many of you, it is clear that we need to take action to balance property rights and beautification in our city. I will work with my staff to study this issue further and return with a proposal that is better suited to balance these two important priorities. My goal is to make the city better with a fair process where municipal candidates don't get hassled and taxpayer money is not wasted by code enforcement officers becoming weapons in city election campaigns.”
In the comments section below her post, Zoltanski assured a resident that it’s just fine to hang a happy birthday banner on their front porch.
“I’ve gotten 80 to 90 emails on this issue, and only five were in favor of making this amendment,” Sharkey said. “The outreach from the public on this issue is clear and the underlying message they're sending us is unmistakable. They want us to protect them from excessive political signage. The last thing we should do when our residents are complaining about signs is to relax our sign laws.”