By Dan Moffett
Keith Davis has been practicing government law in South Florida for two decades, so when he told Briny Breezes Town Council members that regulating signs was difficult, they knew things were going to get complicated.
But it might be getting more complicated than anyone expected — even the town attorney.
In the wake of the November election, the council wanted to rein in temporary signs, especially political campaign signs that showed up throughout town and often weren’t removed after the voting. Real estate and yard sale signs were also an issue.
Davis has written sign ordinances before, one of the most recent coming in Manalapan. The trick is to regulate the size, location and display of signs without getting involved in their content and clashing with First Amendment constitutional rights.
What makes Briny different from Manalapan and other municipalities Davis has counseled is its corporate structure. Because the corporation owns the land, the town has to find a way to work with the corporation’s rules.
“The corporate layer makes it extra complicated,” Davis said during the council’s meeting on Feb. 25. When it comes to signs, finding the right balance between free speech and restriction “is bar none the most difficult thing to regulate I have ever encountered,” he said.
One option is for the town to adopt the corporation’s rules, Davis said, so that the landowner and the municipality were in sync. Another possibility is a “free speech zone” — a designated common area where residents could post signs of all persuasions. Many communities have addressed the problem this way.
The proposed ordinance would not change rules for permanent signage, such as monuments and street signs.
Council President Sue Thaler said it’s clear that Briny needs stronger rules than those on the books to “keep the town from being dumped up by a bunch of signs,” especially during election season.
She said whatever the council does, it’s likely some resident will challenge the new law.
Town Manager William Thrasher said that while it’s important to work with the corporation, it’s more important to safeguard free speech and individual rights.
“Our primary responsibility as a government is to abide by the First Amendment,” he said.
Davis told the council he would do more research and bring back a revised draft of the ordinance for discussion at the next regular meeting on March 25.
Voters can chart course
Briny voters can help give the town its first formal charter by participating in the special election on March 9.
On the ballot are proposed amendments that would outline procedures for governance. The provisions would define the duties and role of the town manager, and make the town clerk an appointed position, rather than elected.
Other measures codify rules and methodology for the Town Council’s operation. Briny has not had a comprehensive, detailed charter since its founding in 1963.