Illegal signs a constant source of frustration

Ordinances difficult to enforce, officials say

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston explained his recent odd behavior by telling police he was frustrated by illegal signs, court records show.

Johnston was spotted by police shortly before midnight on Nov. 24 in the parking lot of The Furniture Place in Shelburne. He was hitting the building with an unidentified object, according to a police affidavit filed in Vermont District Court. Signs advertising the business were scattered near the building.

Johnston pleaded innocent to a charge of driving under the influence stemming from the incident.

Johnston is hardly the only one annoyed by the proliferation of illegal signs. Municipal officials in Chittenden County say the signs, typically advertising a short-term sale and placed in a median or near an intersection, are a constant irritant.

“They’re not signs technically, they’re litter,” said Williston Town Planner Lee Nellis. “Everyone is frustrated. All the other towns have the same problem.”

Off-premise signs advertising a business are usually illegal under local ordinance and state law, particularly when placed in a road’s right of way. But town officials in Williston and other towns have no practical way to enforce the rule.

Under state law, municipalities can threaten $100-a-day fines. The process of collecting the money, however, is unwieldy and lengthy, hardly worthwhile for a sign that may be here today, gone tomorrow.

Johnston declined to discuss the drunk-driving charge. Nor would he comment on illegal signs in general.

But according to the police affidavit, Johnston replied “I was angry” when he was asked why he hit the building. Johnston told the officer that he had just returned from collecting signs he found throughout the area advertising The Furniture Place. Eight to 10 of the signs were tossed on the store’s front steps and one was jammed between the double doors.

After further questioning, Johnston shared more of his feelings about the signs with police.

“ Johnston dropped his hands to his side and began to discuss his frustrations with the store,” the affidavit said.

Scott Gustin, Williston’s previous zoning administrator, likened enforcing the ban on temporary signs to the carnival game of Whack-A-Mole. Gustin said as soon as he uprooted and carted away illegal signs – still the town’s main method of enforcement – more sprouted up.

“The very nature of temporary signs made it virtually impossible to enforce the ordinance efficiently,” said Gustin, who now works for the city of Burlington.

Area towns typically have detailed sign regulations. In Williston, for example, the ordinance spells out the rules in exhaustive detail.

The problem comes with enforcement.

State law requires the town to first notify the business it is violating the ordinance. The business has seven days to respond. If it agrees to remove the sign, the problem is solved.

But the business can appeal to the town’s Development Review Board. That appeal takes roughly 60 days. If the board rules there was in fact a violation, the business can appeal that decision in Vermont Superior Court.

South Burlington may have at least partially solved the sign enforcement problem. The city issues tickets akin to traffic violations to businesses that ignore the sign rules, said Zoning Administrator Ray Belair.

“The other way takes months to go to court,” he said. “This way you can get their attention long before they would take it down.”

The city sometimes warns first-time offenders before issuing a ticket, Belair said. But for a business that repeatedly violates the rules, the fines can be substantial.

The initial ticket carries a $25 fine if the recipient chooses not to contest it, $50 if it is contested. If the challenge fails, the violator must pay the larger amount plus court costs. Repeat violations bring escalating fines up to the maximum $500 allowed under state law.

But even that system is not without its shortcomings. Sometimes businesses don’t pay fines, Belair said. Signs left up only over a weekend may escape city’s notice.

Still, the system works well enough to keep the problem manageable. “It’s not out of control, but some of the signs still slip by us,” Belair said.

Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire said staff members have discussed moving to a ticket-based enforcement for illegal signs. But he has yet to ask the Selectboard to alter the ordinance.

“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” he said.