Posted by: Patricia Salkin | April 22, 2015

Fed. Dist. Court in NY Holds Town Selectively Enforced its Sign Ordinance in an Unconstitutional Manner

The Town’s Land Use and Development Code of 1995, Article 3, section 316.7, as amended in 1997, permits a maximum of two signs of up to fifty square feet in size on property zoned Rural–Agricultural (“RA”). In early 2009, Beck began erecting large signs on his property, which is zoned RA and includes approximately eight-tenths of a mile of frontage along Route 222 in Groton, New York. In June of that year Coats, the Code Enforcement Officer, met with plaintiff and requested that he remove the signs that exceeded section 316.7’s limits, and Beck refused. Coats then issued a “Notice of Violation–Order to Remedy” directing plaintiff to remove all signs from his property that were in excess of that permitted by section 316.7. Following this, Coats, in his official capacity, made a criminal mischief complaint to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department regarding swastikas displayed on Beck’s signs. Coats, who drove by Beck’s property every day on his way to work, informed the Sheriff’s officer that he thought “the person who did it is targeting him” and noted the ongoing litigation between him and Beck. One of the signs read “GARY COATS BELONGS IN PRISON” and had two large swastikas on it, which Beck also refused to take down or paint over. Plaintiff filed a pro se complaint, in which he alleged that the defendant Town of Groton and its officials violated his constitutional rights by issuing numerous citations related to large signs he had posted on his private property located within the Town.

The court first found that Section 316.7 of the Town Land Use and Development Code was content-neutral on its face because it regulated the size and number of signs permitted on certain property, and its application was not dependent on the content of the sign. Here, Beck presented sufficient credible evidence to show he was treated differently than his neighbor, Robert Fouts. The Town consistently and repeatedly enforced section 316.7 of the Land Use and Development Code against Beck; however, it did not bring any enforcement action against Fouts related to the two large signs posted on his property, which was located within two miles of plaintiff’s property. The totality of the circumstances suggested Coats acted with ill will and bad faith towards plaintiff when he contacted the Sheriff’s Department. Accordingly, the court found Beck established by a preponderance of the evidence that the Town selectively enforced section 316.7 of the Land Use and Development Code in violation of his right to equal protection of the laws and in such a way as to interfere with his right to free speech, and awarded him compensatory damages.

Beck v Town of Groton, 2015 WL 1499506 (NDNY 4/1/2015)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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