After 10 households were cited by the borough code enforcement officer for lawn signs, the local government said it will overhaul its 40-year-old municipal law to conform with free-speech rulings.
By Matt Skoufalos | April 4, 2017
Only a few days after citing a handful of residents for lawn signs believed to be in violation of local law, the Haddon Heights municipal government promised changes will be forthcoming.
During Tuesday’s public caucus session, Councilman Stephen Berryhill claimed responsibility for the increased enforcement as the liaison to the borough zoning and construction offices.
“If anyone is at fault for this issue, it is me,” he said. “[Zoning Officer] Ron Newell was following the law as he interpreted it. We will not pursue these signs until the Zoning and Planning Board has a hearing on these issues.”
Berryhill said the ordinance “needs to change,” and promised that the local government would hold public hearings on its revision. Berryhill said that, beyond his official capacity, he personally values neighborliness as the highest goal for political discourse.
“I don’t like signs in town,” Berryhill said. “I think people who put up signs in town should be courteous to their neighbors. I think these particular signs, for some of the people, have a political edge. We’re sort of divided in our country right now.
“I love Haddon Heights,” he continued. “I came here because I like it. I think it’s a nice town, people get along, and they work well together. I think overall, we see an issue with our code, and we’re going to take care of it.”
Haddon Heights Solicitor Albert Olizi said the ordinance, written nearly 40 years ago, is overdue for an update. He promised that the local government would revise the statute to reflect contemporary community standards.
“This ordinance is long and detailed, and it’s not written very well, but this was the state of ordinances when this one was written a long time ago,” Olizi said.
“They’re not supported by the change of the law. It does have to be changed; it’s a good time to do it.”
Olizi said that the municipal sign ordinance in Haddon Heights is “content-neutral,” but may not square with landmark Supreme Court cases like City of Ladue v. Gilleo (1994) or Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona (2015), in both of which the court ruled unanimously in favor of free speech.
“From the cases I’ve seen, there’s really very little that can be restricted,” the solicitor said. “You can probably restrict the number of signs, the location, the size, but it’s got to be reasonable for somebody to express their position.
“You’ve got to give free speech,” he said. “After that, it’s about the neighbors being nice.”
Olizi said protected speech will probably also cover the “God Bless America” signs that hang in at least 10 storefronts in the Haddon Heights central business district, a segment of town that is further regulated by historic preservation standards.
In the meantime, he said, “the only way we can deal with it is to not enforce.”
Haddon Heights Mayor Jack Merryfield also took responsibility for the incident, saying he’d personally reviewed the language of the notices the enforcement officer submitted before they were issued.
“We don’t like seeing Ron at our house because it means we’re in violation of something,” Merryfield said. “If he didn’t do his job, I wouldn’t want to live in Heights. All he was doing was trying to follow an ordinance that we have here in town. There was no political intent at all. I apologize to anybody who was hurt by it.”
In all, Merryfield said 10 households were noticed for various forms of noncompliance with the sign code, including home-based businesses and contractors as well as the “Hate Has No Home Here” displays.
“I appreciate the people who brought it to our attention because it’s something we can look over and reform,” Merryfield said.
“I don’t know what our boundaries will be. Maybe it will be the size of the signs, maybe the placement of the signs.
“Whatever we do, we have to have a happy medium to make the residents happy and comfortable.”
Haddon Heights resident Danielle Linaris, one of that group of 10, said she was “marginally satisfied” by the actions of the council.
She still didn’t think the issue would have been fixed without her public objections.
“I don’t think it would have been rectified that quickly if I didn’t contact the press,” she said.
Her husband Chris Linaris, a recent Democratic candidate for borough government, said he didn’t believe the enforcement was politically motivated. But he echoed Danielle Linaris’ perspective that “if we didn’t bring it to the papers, it would be lingering in nowhere land.
“We wanted it to be rectified,” he said. “We do feel it’s rectified. I feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”
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