Law limits local sign patrol

A new state law limits municipalities’ authority on the placement of political signs.

North Carolina lawmakers passed Senate Bill 315 in August. The bill allows residents to place political signs in the right-of-ways of state-maintained roads. It’s a change that trumps many municipal ordinances that previously ruled against right-of-way signs along state highways and streets.

The law does not prohibit any signs on controlled access highways, such as Interstate 40 and Interstate 77.

Currently, no local government’s sign ordinance allows election signage in the public right-of-way, which is typically located between the sidewalk and the street. The state law, which went into effect Oct. 1, permits signs meeting regulation in the right-of-way of state maintained roads.

Municipal ordinances still apply to streets that are both within the municipality’s limits and are maintained by the city or town. Conover maintains about 48 miles of city maintained streets.

“Our rule still would apply to our roads, but the law will apply to all (N.C. Department of Transportation) roads, which is where you’d find probably 80 percent of the signs,” said Lance Hight, Conover’s planning director.

N.C. 16, U.S. 70 and Rock Barn Road are three examples of state maintained roads in the area.

There are still regulations for sign types and how they are handled. The new law creates a list of restrictions that all political signs must meet – standards that are different than many area codes.

Maiden, for example, approved a Unified Development Ordinance on Monday that contains detailed wording for political signs, but the town now has no jurisdiction over state maintained roads.

While Maiden’s ordinance says that political signs must be taken down within 48 hours of Election Day, the state’s law gives sign owners up to 10 days to remove a sign after the election. Both ordinances are correct in their respective areas, but they could cause confusion with sign owners.

“Most people are good about taking it up, but every year you have a yellow sign with black magic marker and they just sit there deteriorating. They are going to show their age,” said Sam Schultz, Maiden planning director. “You can have a sign that is 70 percent damaged after the election and somebody wants to come through and pick up a litter, but they would be charged with a class 3 misdemeanor. Even after 10 days, we can’t go pick them up. We are going to have to call board of elections or the (NCDOT).”

The new law also makes it illegal for municipal officials or any resident to “unlawfully” remove signs along state-maintained roads, even if they may be against municipal code. Anyone who does unlawfully remove, steal or vandalize signs would be charged with a class three misdemeanor, according to the law.

Cities like Newton are also affected by the new law. According to Newton’s ordinance, the city allows political signs up to 32 square feet in size, or about 68 inches by 68 inches. The state’s law, however, requires that signs be smaller – about 30 inches by 30 inches.

Newton Planning Director Glenn Pattishall said highways like N.C. 16, N.C. 10 and U.S. 321 Business are all roadways that flow through Newton that are affected by the change.

“It would have to be something really, really bad for us to take a sign up,” Pattishall said. “We are going to focus on enforcing the local ordinance on city streets and not enforcing it on state highways.”

Enforcing the law

The NCDOT is responsible for enforcing the signage law along state-maintained highways. According to the law, NCDOT officials can remove any sign erected that doesn’t meet the requirements of the law.

“In the past, before the law, it’s not something we focused a lot of our time on unless it was a safety issue,” said NCDOT District Engineer Michael Poe. “With this law, we will not be allowing signs on controlled access highways and will keep an eye out for signs that were blocking intersections.”

If a sign is out of compliance, the NCDOT will take it up and call the owner to retrieve it, Poe said. There is no additional penalty.

Enforcing large, and small, areas for political sign code can sometimes be a difficult task, especially when politics are involved.

“We don’t want to be involved in politics, but as soon as you start picking up signs people say things,” Poe said.

Hight agrees.

“I think enforcement is always an issue with any political signs,” Hight said. “It’s almost impossible to enforce. No one has the manpower to do it – the (NCDOT) or a city. You have to hope that people respect public safety and as a general rule, we try not to pull political signs. We don’t want to ever get into the politics of it.”