Millville looks at signage — including political signs

The Millville Town Council’s workshop meeting on Tuesday, March 22, could be called a “sign” of the times.

A major topic of discussion was the council’s proposed amendments to its sign regulations — particularly referring to political signs. The move, according to Town Solicitor Seth Thompson, is a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 2015 regarding “content neutrality” of temporary signs.

At issue, Thompson said, is how the Town words its sign regulations in terms of content — whether there are different regulations for different types of signs. In Reed v. City of Gilbert, the Supreme Court found that an Arizona town unconstitutionally regulated political signs differently than, say, directional signs. The case in question involved a small church with no permanent home, which placed temporary signs to direct people to wherever the church was meeting at that time.

The Supreme Court decision reversed an earlier circuit court decision and proclaimed that the town’s sign ordinance unfairly differentiated between different types of signs. Thus, Thompson said, the need for Millville to revisit its sign ordinance to ensure that it, too, is “content neutral.”

“We’re really kind of in the forefront of this,” Thompson said at the council workshop.

Councilman Steve Small wondered if changing the town’s sign ordinance might “open the door” to temporary commercial signs being allowed for a period of several weeks, as political signs are currently regulated.

“Is it customary for a business to erect a political advocacy sign?” Small asked.

He said he “could see a business wanting to put up a sign in the case of a referendum,” as opposed to endorsing one political candidate over another, which, he said, might alienate some customers. He asked Thompson to clear up language in the amendment to eliminate confusion.

Town Manager Debbie Botchie, however, expressed concern as to whether changing the amendment would fly in the face of the recent Supreme Court decision.

“Why not go ahead and amend the ordinance as written and see what happens this political year?” she asked.

The discussion led to some talk amongst town officials about other signage issues in the town, particularly the handling of signs belonging to businesses along Route 26 that have had to remove them due to road construction. Some of those signs were not in conformance with Town regulations, Botchie said, and will have to be brought in line with the regulations before they are re-installed.

“Any business that had to move a sign, they had to conform. Others need to be contacted as well,” in order to bring all signs in the town into compliance, Botchie said. “I think we have, like, 96 percent non-conforming,” she said.

Town Code & Building Administrator Eric Evans said, “You’re going to have signs that are always going to be non-conforming on Route 26.”

Small expressed concerns about the large signs at Millville’s two large shopping centers, but Botchie said they are in compliance because they are located in the town’s C-2, large commercial zone. Botchie added that there will be no more of those types of signs in the town because its comprehensive plan does not allow for more of that type of development in the town.

A public hearing on the proposed changes to the town’s signage ordinance will be held at the April 12 town council meeting.

Botchie on March 22 also presented the draft 2017-fiscal-year budget to the council. Details will be available to the public in advance of the April 12 town council meeting on the budget, Botchie said.

The council also heard the annual audit report from the Town’s auditor. Herb Geary of the TGM Group Inc. announced that the Town’s books have received the notation of “unmodified,” which he said is the “highest level of assurance” that the Town’s books are in fine shape.

The Town had $2.8 million cash on hand at the end of its 2015 budget year, Geary said, which with expenditures of $526,000, he added, is outstanding.

“Debbie [Botchie] and Lisa [Wynn, finance administrator] are very good at what they do and they tend to be very proactive, which is good for us,” Geary said.