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Ryan Johnson, Published October 05 2012

Amid sea of campaign signs, a handful of lawbreakers

FARGO – It’s hard to miss the semi-trailer sitting in a parking lot along the 2800 block of South University Drive, its sides covered in giant red, white and blue banners encouraging voters to back the Republican candidates in North Dakota’s District 46 legislative race.

Eye-catching as it may be, it also violates Fargo’s revamped sign code that’s been in place since last November, and the trailer will be moved.

The same goes with a large sign on the northwest corner of Broadway and 12th Avenue North supporting District 44’s GOP candidates, which Sen. Tim Flakoll said would be replaced with something much smaller.

The problem with Flakoll’s sign? It’s in a residential zone, meaning it can’t be larger than 8 square feet.

In North Dakota, few state laws dictate what’s acceptable as a campaign sign. The name of the person or group that paid for it must be included. Signs can’t knowingly include lies. They must be taken down before Election Day. And it’s prohibited to place signs on property owned by a government agency.

Other than that, rules are determined by individual communities because it comes down to a zoning issue, said Fargo Inspections Administrator Ron Strand.

In Fargo, campaign signs are considered “noncommercial” because they’re not trying to sell anything, meaning they’re exempt from city permit requirements. But Strand said they still must adhere to the rest of the city’s revamped sign code, a 45-page document outlining rules, formulas and exemptions.

The rules

Strand said as a whole, the new sign code isn’t more restrictive or more liberal than the city rules that governed previous campaign seasons. But there are some changes, and it can be difficult to know if a sign is acceptable.

“People don’t make a study of our ordinances typically, and so you get some that run afoul of it,” he said. “I don’t think it would typify any of it or characterize any of it as malicious or purposeful.”

There are some rules that apply to all signs in the city – they can’t be dangerous, must be held down enough to not move around in the wind and can’t be placed on boulevards, which are city-owned right-of-ways.

It’s also prohibited to have a sign attached to or painted on a vehicle or trailer that’s parked for more than 24 hours.

The reaction

District 46 Republicans broke that rule, with their trailer banner along University Drive as well as another parked semi-trailer along 52nd Avenue South drawing complaints that made it to the city’s inspections department that’s tasked with enforcing sign ordinances.

District 46 Chairman Chris Deitch said the trailers will be moved by Oct. 13, the deadline to act after a 10-day warning from the city to pull the signs.

Most infractions against the code come up because signs are simply too big. Strand said the allowable size varies, depending on how the property is zoned.

All single-family residential zones, as well as most multi-family zoning districts, only allow a total signage of 64 square feet or less, and no one sign can exceed 8 square feet.

That’s the rule that prompted the inspections department to contact Flakoll on Thursday because the District 44 GOP sign on the corner of 12th Avenue North and Broadway was much larger than 8 square feet.

Flakoll said the new code can be confusing – other District 44 signs of the exact same size are fine in other neighborhoods that are zoned differently. In most nonresidential zones, maximum total signage is determined by a formula looking at the property’s linear distance of street frontage multiplied by 2.5, or 30 percent of the front façade of the property, whichever is greater.

“But I think there’s a lot more important issues that the voters are focused on than somebody running around with a tape measure,” Flakoll said, adding that the three signs violating the code will be swapped with smaller signs “in a timely fashion.”

Strand said it’s “a tall order” to expect the inspections department to crack down on every sign that violates the rules. The department’s main job is issuing building permits and inspecting construction sites.

When a violation is reported, city staff members contact the property owner or sponsor of the sign and order its removal within 10 days. Because the signs are on private property, he said all his staff can do is check back later to make sure the signs have been changed or removed to get in compliance.

If no action is taken, Strand said the city attorney could take them to court. But he doesn’t remember ever taking a campaign sign dispute that far.

“We have to have their cooperation, or it ends up in the attorney’s office,” Strand said. “I mean, can you think of anything worse as a recourse than trying to go into court for something seasonal like this?”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587


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