Signs in West St. Paul

Ongoing Sign Debate in West St. Paul

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Sign drama in West St. Paul drew international headlines earlier this year when a Black Lives Matter mural ran afoul of city ordinances. Get ready for more: A garage mural featuring a black power fist and a rainbow has been cited by the city, another home owner challenged city sign ordinances and (sort of) won, and school board candidate yard signs face complicated rules.

Garage Mural

Last summer, Brianna Maxon’s 13-year-old son asked if he could paint a mural on the garage door of their house on Altman Court. Maxon wants their children to follow their passions, so they said yes and took him to Lowe’s to buy paint.

In September, the City of West St. Paul cited the mural for violating city ordinances, specifically as a “wall sign” and being too large for a residential district.

“I’m ready to fight this,” Maxon said. “The people deserve simple to understand statutes as well as the right to free expression.” (We’ve previously documented some of the weird sign ordinances.)

The city is working with the homeowner to give them reasonable time to bring the garage door into compliance, though the homeowner will likely have until November 12 due to an election exemption in the sign ordinance.

Allowing All or None

The garage mural issue is similar to the Black Lives Matter mural that came up earlier this year, spawning international headlines and a competing Blue Lives Matter mural. That mural controversy sparked a debate in City Council, which faced a dilemma that allowing some speech meant allowing any speech. Council members said they heard resoundingly from neighbors who didn’t want that, so Council left the sign ordinance alone.

Complaint-Based Enforcement

Maxon’s citation is potentially another example of the city’s complaint-based code enforcement. Their citation came after a complaint and Maxon says they have a history of being harassed by a neighbor. (Nov. 8, 2021 Update: After talking with their neighbors, Maxon says they’re supportive of the garage mural and the complaint must have come from someone else.)

About 80% of the city’s code enforcement is driven by complaints, which can empower bullies and target controversial messages. The result is that Maxon’s garage door isn’t the only garage mural in town, but it’s the one being cited. The challenge is that the opposite approach—proactive code enforcement, where city staff drives around looking for issues—is predictably unpopular and more expensive.

Sign Ordinances Challenged

Multiple yard signs

When Amanda Davis and Ross Koon received a citation for their yard signs on Smith Avenue, they fought back. The city said they had too many signs and one of them was too large. Davis and Koon cut the large sign in half so it met size requirements and argued the city’s ‘one sign per yard’ limit didn’t apply to yard signs. The city disagreed and the matter went before a judge. Davis and Koon also argued that limiting signs infringed on their free speech.

The judge’s decision?

  • Cutting a large sign in half to avoid sign size restrictions? Nice try, but no. The judge sided with the city.
  • Limiting signs infringes on free speech? Judge said no—the city has the right to limit the size and number of signs.
  • Restricting homeowners to one sign per yard? Homeowner wins, but on a technicality with the ordinance language.

Current city ordinance restricts a residential property to “one freestanding sign” (153.435 D)—which is what the city bases their ‘one sign per yard’ rule on. However, the ordinance also gives a very specific definition of ‘freestanding sign.’ It’s basically a monument sign made of permanent material like brick or stucco, not a cardboard yard sign. Cities are allowed to limit the number of signs, but West St. Paul’s ordinance only limits a certain type of sign.

Bottom line? The city is no longer enforcing the ‘one sign per yard’ ordinance. Residents can put up as many yard signs as they like.

What’s next? The city will be revising the sign ordinance to make it “more user friendly,” according to City Attorney Kori Land. It’s unclear what those changes will be, but look for them to go through City Council—with a public hearing—in the near future.

School Candidate Signs

Sarah Larsen school board candidate sign

While West St. Paul residents can now put up as many yard signs as they want, that’s actually something that happens every year due to the election exemption. Forty-six days before a state primary and 13 weeks before a special election (like this year’s school board election), “all signs of any size containing noncommercial speech may be posted” until 10 days after the election.

But that exemption isn’t widely known. School board candidate Sarah Larsen had put up 46 signs before being notified by ISD 197 that she couldn’t put up signs until Friday, September 17—46 days before the election.

Unfortunately, that’s a misreading of state law that preempts local sign ordinances, but only during state primaries and general election. The school board election is not a state general election and there is no primary.

Turns out local laws still apply to campaign signs during this school board election, and that’s going to vary across the district. Several communities offer election exemptions for off-year elections, but the exemption period before the election varies wildly:

  • Eagan: 46 days (their election sign info doesn’t address off-year elections, but they follow the state primary standard)
  • Lilydale: No exemption
  • Inver Grove Heights: 6 months (10-15E-4)
  • Mendota: 45 days (805.105, 1 C, see page 139)
  • Mendota Heights: 1 month (12-1D-15)
  • Sunfish Lake: 13 weeks (1222.02 5)
  • West St. Paul: 13 weeks (153.438)

So school board candidate signs are allowed in some places, but not in others.

Freedom to Do What You Want?

As the sign ordinance debate continues, an often repeated refrain is that people should be able to do whatever they want on their own property. That seems like a simple declaration, but it ignores the multitude of ways governments restrict rights on your own property.

In West St. Paul, for example, this includes the type and number of pets allowed; the number of cars and where they can be parked on your property; the type, size, and coloring of fencing; when noise is acceptable, etc. That’s just the tip of the iceberg on local limits, never mind state or federal laws. (You can see more examples in our list of weird ordinances.)

In short, you don’t have the right to do anything you want on your own property, and that includes signs.

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