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Election signs raise concerns about city’s code

City Council: Is Prescott ban on signs in public rights-of-way enforceable?

The mid-term elections have brought a plethora of signs onto the local roadside landscape. (Courier file)

The mid-term elections have brought a plethora of signs onto the local roadside landscape. (Courier file)

Every election year, it seems, the Prescott City Council grapples with a recurring issue: What to do about temporary street signs.

This year is no different. On Tuesday, Oct. 23, city officials brought a number of concerns to the council’s attention.

Basically, City Attorney Jon Paladini said, the city’s existing code banning signs in the public rights-of-way is being widely violated by campaigns for candidates and ballot issues.

Two years ago, the city approved a strict sign code that banned most signs in the public rights-of-way, which includes public land along city streets.

But during the 2018 election season, Paladini said campaign signs began going up, and the city’s code enforcement division has had a difficult time keeping up.

“What happened was (the signs) started going up, and it just got away from us,” Paladini said after the meeting.

Unlike in local elections, during which the city gets many inquiries from campaigns about where signs can legally be located, Paladini said this year’s mid-term election has involved signs by many out-of-town political groups — few of which asked questions about the city’s code.

Prescott’s code enforcement staff has made an effort to remove signs that do not include contact information, as required by law, Paladini said. But as for others that are illegally in the public right-of-way, he said, staffers are not allowed to remove the signs. Rather, they must notify the campaigns and ask for compliance – an overwhelming task this year. “We can ban them, but there’s a process,” Paladini said.

Council members voiced concerns over the enforceability of the city’s existing code.

“Obviously, we are not able to enforce what we have, because we have hundreds of signs in our rights-of-way,” said Mayor Pro Tem Billie Orr. “We should consider, ‘what can we enforce?’ ”

Councilman Steve Sischka added: “We were very determined to get signs out of the public right-of-way. But we have not just a few signs in the public right-of-way; it’s to the point where it’s almost obnoxious.”

City officials acknowledge that it can be difficult for campaigns to determine exactly where the public right-of-way ends and privately owned land begins.

“It’s difficult because there are different widths,” Worley said. “As far as a hard line? There aren’t any.”

Paladini said the issue appeared on the council’s Oct. 23 study session agenda because questions are already coming up from potential candidates for Prescott’s 2019 city election.

A city memo noted that the 2016 sign code changes were made in response to a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision relating to the regulation of signs. Prescott’s revision was done “to ensure that the city’s Land Development Code conformed to Constitutional protections of free speech,” the memo stated.

The memo also included a number of options for changes to the code, dealing with factors such as sign size and height, and whether the signs are located on residential or commercial property.

The city’s Unified Development Code Committee and Planning and Zoning Commission likely will weigh in before the matter goes back to the City Council for a decision on a possible code revision.

“We’re looking for a balance between aesthetics/clutter and freedom of expression,” Paladini said.