Archived News

Oversized political signs cause a stir in Waynesville

fr curemayorAn explosion of campaign signs so large they could pass for miniature billboards cropped up seemingly overnight in Waynesville last week, creating a tizzy over what’s legal and what’s tasteful.

Waynesville residents first discovered the giant signs erected by mayoral candidate Jonnie Cure on their way to work or school Wednesday morning, and by lunch time, the town planning office was fielding calls from the public wanting to know, “Are those big things allowed?”

A few of Cure’s signs indeed violate the town’s sign ordinance and will have to be removed. But not because they are too big.

The town’s political sign rules allow signs up to 16 square feet, and Cure’s clock in at exactly 4-feet-by-4-feet.

Some do violate the height limit of 42 inches, however. But the town isn’t enforcing the height limit, due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court case defining campaign signs as protected political speech.

As a result, the town is only flagging signs as out-of-order if they are too close to the road or interfere with the visibility of motorists, according to Elizabeth Teague, town development services director.

Related Items

Teague did not have a tally as of press time Tuesday of how many of Cure’s signs were breaking the rules, but it’s probably not going to be a lot since the town isn’t policing the size or height of signs — focusing instead only on those that run afoul with traffic safety concerns.

It’s an evolving situation, however. More signs could go up, and signs not previously noticed could be brought to the town’s attention.

“It is an ongoing process. Town staff will be evaluating signs throughout the week and as they go up,” Teague said. “Signs are appearing in new places daily.”

So far all the complaints and inquiries the town has received about political signs have been over Cure’s signs.

Cure is running as a challenger to unseat Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown, who has served on the town board 16 years. Cure is an active and outspoken voice in the local conservative movement, while Brown is running on his record of progress. 

Brown said he personally found the size of Cure’s signs objectionable. Brown said this is one instance where he won’t try to keep up with the Joneses.

“I’ve had people hounding me to put up bigger signs than she’s got,” Brown said. “My style and the way I do things are different. I am not running on who has the most signs and the biggest signs.”

Cure said she is proud of her signs.

“It is shocking to see my name in such large print,” Cure admitted.

But Cure said the town of Waynesville is going overboard as usual.

“If government has nothing better to do than regulate signs, then there is something wrong with government,” Cure said. “There are many, many businesses in Waynesville that object to the town’s attempt to regulate their signs. This did not start with Jonnie Cure and her signs.”

Candidates are limited in how early they can put up signs: 30 days before the start of early voting. Cure was first out of the gate, with signs up by dawn when the 30-day mark arrived.

Those with a more astute eye realized something was afoot days before Cure’s signs actually appeared, however. The wooden frames that hold the signs were fashioned and put in the ground ahead of time, so all that was left to do was mount the sign face.

“We started getting calls about them then. Everyone sort of suspected they were political signs,” Teague said.

Based on the yards where the frames were being put in, it was quickly concluded they were Cure’s political signs.

Concerned that some of the frames — if intended to hold campaign signs — were pushing the envelope of the town’s sign law, the zoning office called Cure to touch base and make sure she had a copy of the sign regulations before she got too far along. 

But she didn’t return the town’s call. 

Over the weekend, candidates received a memo from the town in the mail — sent out on the town’s behalf by the county election office — explaining the town’s sign rules.

Teague said the hope was that candidates would self-police once made aware of the rules.

If they don’t however, the town will start tagging signs that are out of compliance with a card warning the candidate to remove the sign within 48 hours.

“We are trying to give people a chance to comply on their own. It is not our desire to go relocate people’s signs,” Teague said.

Cure said all her signs are kosher.

“None of them interfere with visibility. I have checked every one of them myself after they were put up,” Cure said.

Cure said she got one call that one of her signs was making it hard for a neighbor to back out of her driveway because she’d had neck surgery and couldn’t turn her head well. Cure’s team moved the sign the next day.

“If there has been an issue we have solved it immediately. If anyone has an issue with my marketing, they should call me. I am one of the best listeners they will every encounter,” Cure said.

The town’s zoning officers did a ride around Monday to inspect the campaign sign proliferation. No signs were tagged as of press time Tuesday, but as the week progresses, Teague said the town would tag any they find out of compliance.

If they aren’t removed after 48 hours of being tagged, the town will pull them up and keep them in the planning office for candidates to come and retrieve.

Town zoning staff has pulled up two signs so far. Both were Cure signs placed on town park property — one at the skateboard park and one near the playground. They weren’t the big wooden ones, but rather the standard sort of political signs with wire prongs that poke in the ground.

But Cure said she didn’t put signs in the recreation park.

“I have no control over my signs once they are out there,” Cure said.

Meanwhile, a series of three signs along Main Street in front of the justice center have disappeared as well. The town nor county pulled them up, however, and Cure said she hasn’t either. Cure wondered if someone else pulled up the signs at the justice center and plunked them in the park. 

The signs pulled up from the park are being kept at town hall. After learning from the newspaper they were there, she plans to go by and get them.

“I’ll have to thank them for getting those signs back for me,” Cure said.

Teague said it can’t be assumed that any and every sign that goes missing is the town’s doing.

“The town isn’t the only interested party. The county, DOT, and private property owners who have found unwanted signs on their private property all have a right to remove signs based on their own policies and decisions,” Teague explained.

Legally, political signs are allowed in the public right-of-way along town streets and state roads, except for controlled-access highways. There’s a caveat, however. If the right-of-way fronts a private residence or business, the candidate must have the property owner’s permission.

 

Monkey wrench in political sign rules

The flap over Cure’s giant campaign signs has been tricky for town zoning staff to navigate. They don’t want to be accused of going after Cure’s signs because she’s running against the sitting mayor.

But likewise, they can’t turn a blind eye to violations of the town’s political sign rules. 

The town’s approach to the political sign drama has been further complicated by a recent Supreme Court ruling, which has debunked the campaign sign rules for thousands of towns and cities across the country.

The Supreme Court ruled that local governments couldn’t have a separate set of rules that apply to political signs.

“The issue with the court case is you can’t as a local government distinguish content. It is freedom of speech,” Teague said.

It’s about time, according to Cure

“What is tactful to me may not be what is tactful to you,” Cure said. “It is such a vague and indefinable idea. It is impossible for government to regulate this to the inch where I can put my signs. They will always be in opposition to our constitutional right to express ourselves.”

Prior to the Supreme Court decision, political signs could be no bigger than 16 square feet and no taller than 42 inches, per the rules on town books.

Cure opposes government regulation of signs at a broader level.

“They will always be in opposition to our constitutional right to express ourselves,” Cure said.

When Cure was ordering her signs, she didn’t know about the Supreme Court decision, and held the size under the allowed 16 square feet, per the rules on town books. But many of her signs are taller than the 42 inches allowed under the town’s rules and would have had to be lowered had it not been for the Supreme Court decision prompting the town not to enforce that part of its ordinance.

“We are trying to err on the side of caution,” Teague said.

The political signage ruling poses a conundrum for town and cities all over the country. Most locales have an entire suite of sign rules that vary by the type of sign and part of town they’re in.

Waynesville is no different. The town has a long menu of standards for all sorts of signs.

What’s appropriate for real estate signs differs from yard sale signs, and differ still from signs in front of a home promoting “another quality roofing job” by a local contractor.

Banners advertising special events for nonprofits like church suppers or street festivals fall under one set of rules, while banners advertising a grand opening or special sale by a business have another set of rules.

Going forward, the town could still regulate political signs. They just can’t be their own category, and can’t be referred to as “rules for political signage,” because that is singling out political speech, the court ruled.

Instead, political sign rules will have to be lumped in with another category, like yard sale signs or real estate signs, and referred to more generically rather than rules for political signs.

That will be something the planning board eventually has to take up, Teague said.

“When the election is over and the dust settles we will have to look at it and see what our planning board would recommend,” Teague said. “Often local government has to adapt to Supreme Court decisions that create law through precedent.”

It didn’t seem fair, nor was there enough time, to retool the rules mid-stream or on the fly with election season already afoot, Teague said.

“The goal with creating new rules and changing rules is to make sure you are being fair to all involved,” Teague said.

Cure isn’t a fan of regulations and doesn’t like the town’s sign rules in general — not just rules for political signs, but those limiting the size and style of businesses signs as well.

“Government underestimates business people in this town and thinks we are going to put up ugly or outrageous signs and the power of control steps in and government decided they can dictate to everybody what they can and cannot do,” Cure said.

 

 

Election is nigh

Elections for mayor and town board are being held in small towns across the mountains this fall. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3. Early voting starts on Thursday, Oct. 22. Not registered to vote yet at your current in-town address? There’s still time. The deadline to register to vote is 25 days before Election Day.

Leave a comment

Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.