A decision by the New Castle Town Board to limit the escalation of lawn signs in public spaces throughout town has been met with concerns that some signs are being removed from private property.
The growing controversy occurred after a board majority recently tried clarifying for its code enforcement officers a longstanding town law that prohibits signs from being displayed in the public right of way.
While the town has not traditionally enforced political signs, Supervisor Ivy Pool said there has been a steady stream of complaints since she’s been in office requesting that the board crack down on those who place signs of all types on public property.
Pool said she responded at one point to a resident that the town would likely steer clear of enforcement on political signage because their presence has been a democratic tradition during the run-up to an election, but the code enforcement officer and town counsel instructed her that there needs to be consistency and clarity.
There have also been signs for various businesses scattered about town that also clutter the roadsides, she said.
“It came down to essentially were we going to allow signs to proliferate throughout town or were we going to enforce the law that we have and have had for decades,” Pool said.
The issue has strained emotions among some town residents in what has been a tense six-month period since the public hearing commenced on the Form Based Code. Signs opposing the proposed code have sprouted since last fall, and now with a Democratic primary for Town Board heating up in what is viewed by some as a matchup of slates with opposing views on the code, tensions continue to intensify.
Councilwoman Lisa Katz, one of the Democratic candidates for supervisor who opposes stepping up of sign enforcement, said she finds the timing of the remainder of the board’s action “troubling.” She said she believes the Stop the Form Based Code signs are being targeted as a strategy “to suppress free speech.”
“So I find it troubling that these signs are really being targeted because it is such a hot-button issue in the election,” Katz said. “It seems like they’re trying to suppress political expression here so that it’s not an issue for people to be aware of to vote upon.”
Pool said employees will not be scouring the town’s roads removing signs, but where there are complaints that turn out to be valid and if there are obvious violations, those will be addressed.
“We don’t have an army of code enforcers who are going to go out and remove political signs or any other lawn signs from around town,” Pool said. “We don’t have the manpower for that, or the person power for that, nor do we have the budget for that, nor do we have the appetite to do so.”
Town Attorney Nicholas Ward-Willis explained that signs on private property are not affected by the more stringent enforcement, but any sign in the public right of way could be subject to removal. The right of way is defined as the roadway, then if there is a sidewalk and what could be up to three feet from the edge of the pavement.
“So your first two or three feet of what you think is your property is likely not your property, it’s the right of way,” Ward-Willis said.
Highlighting the politically-charged emotions in town, resident Margaret Ferguson, president of Residents United to Save Chappaqua Hamlet, a group opposed to the code, said last month a resident had two signs on her property vandalized, having been slashed with a box cutter and covered with profanities.
In the early afternoon on Apr. 25, Ferguson said someone came to her house, ripped her lawn sign from its holder, cut it in half and tossed it in her driveway. Later that day, after she had replaced the sign, a car arrived at her property, and the driver seeing her sign, made lewd gestures.
“It’s extremely serious what’s going on in this community,” said Ferguson, who did not specifically criticize the town’s recent sign enforcement. “There is a lot of animosity directed toward us for no good reason.”
Katz said she has heard from hundreds of residents who believe that the town’s actions are going too far.
“I don’t have hundreds of people calling me saying their signs are getting stolen; I have hundreds of people calling me asking about this law, and many – yeah, hundreds – asking me about this, and many others are saying their signs are being stolen,” Katz said.
Deputy Supervisor Jeremy Saland said residents who have their signs vandalized should call the police. Citizens should not be deputizing themselves as enforcement officers.
“By all means make the report. We don’t want that to happen,” Saland said. “No residents should take the law into their own hands to effectuate it and enforce it, and they shouldn’t do it now.”
There are two authorized public spaces in town where organizations can ask the town to place their signs for upcoming events – on the grassy portion of the triangle in downtown Chappaqua and near the corner of routes 133 and 100 in Millwood.