Saturday, April 13, 2024

Southport issues stay on enforcing potentially unconstitutional political sign ordinance

The Southport board of aldermen discussed a legally dubious political sign ordinance on Oct. 6, 2023. (Port City Daily/file photo)

SOUTHPORT — One line tucked into a Brunswick County city’s sign ordinance is causing a stir among the board of aldermen. 

READ MORE: Study shows sewer merger with county cheaper for Southport residents

At their regular meeting on Thursday, the aldermen discussed the rules regarding political signs outlined in the town’s unified development ordinance. 

It reads: “On private property, one (1) sign shall be permitted per lot, not exceeding eight (8) square feet in area per display face, and two (2) faces per sign.” 

This is the only text referring to signs on private property, and according to alderman Lowe Davis, the city should remove it. Davis claimed the ordinance violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects individuals’ right to express their opinion. Davis said her claim was backed up by the First Amendment and First Amendment Coalition, two nationally recognized organizations that advise on freedom of speech. 

“Suppose I want two signs, I’m backing two candidates,” Davis said at the meeting. “I like Ike, I like Bob. Our UDO says I have to pick one — I can like Ike, but I can’t say that I like Bob. That’s a violation of my First Amendment right.” 

Davis cited the 1994 Supreme Court case City of Ladue v. Gilleo in which a unanimous Supreme Court ruled municipalities could not issue sweeping prohibitions on the display of political signs on a homeowner’s property. Writing the unanimous decision was Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote Ladue’s ordinance. It  banned all political signs on private property, “almost completely foreclosed a venerable means of communication that is both unique and important.”

City attorney Brady Herman told the board the ordinance was “not unconstitutional per se” but noted if challenged a court could rule the one-sign rule was too restrictive. 

The case does not prevent municipalities from regulating signs. Commercial signs, such as business advertising and for-sale signs follow a different set of rules, while municipalities are allowed to regulate timeframes and size dimensions for campaign signs in the public right-of-way. 

Herman noted the reasons for regulation, including ordinances regarding private property signs, are aimed at preserving aesthetics and public safety. In Steven’s opinion, he writes “residents’ self-interest in maintaining their own property values and preventing ‘visual clutter’ in their yards and neighborhoods diminishes the danger of an ‘unlimited’ proliferation of signs.”

Bonnie Therrien, city manager, said to Port City Daily on Friday she was told the section of the ordinance in question was never enforced until this year. Davis, along with aldermen John Allen and Thomas Lombardi, are up for reelection this year; Mayor Joseph Hatem too.

At least one resident shared Davis’ outlook; Jason Robbins spoke on the topic during public comment. 

“I call your attention to the oaths you each swore when you took these offices, that nothing you shall do shall contravene the Constitution,” Robbins said. 

The resident called for the aldermen to draft a resolution ordering city code enforcement to stall citations until further review of the ordinance could take place. While Davis pushed for the aldermen to remove the language from the ordinance at Thursday’s meeting, her fellow officials wanted to allow the amendment to go through normal process. 

“At the end of the day, our intent is to do the right thing and the right thing is allowing people to display more than one political sign in their yard,” alderman Robert Carroll said. “So for that reason, I say at this point let’s allow the planning board to do what they do, go through that process, and today just not enforce the ordinance as it is written.”

Ultimately, the directive to cease enforcement on that portion of the ordinance passed unanimously. 

It’s almost like trying to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon’ 

The aldermen once again discussed affordable housing after hearing presentations and pleas from residents to address homelessness over the last few months.

Aldermen Richard Alt proposed the city draft a resolution to work with Brunswick County Habitat for Humanity and other organizations to provide some, however little, affordable housing in Southport. 

He was met with resistance. 

“This is a good topic to make us feel good, and I really appreciate it, but it’s not going to happen in Southport,” Carroll said. 

The alderman argued it was unrealistic, considering the land prices in corporate limits, and said Brunswick County should be doing more to extend utilities to rural areas, where organizations like Habitat for Humanity should be putting affordable housing.

Davis echoed Carroll’s sentiments and said she didn’t think any developer could be incentivized to provide enough housing to make a difference in Southport.

“It’s almost like trying to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon,” Davis said. 

The consensus was to reach out to the county with a request for more affordable housing and homeless initiatives. 

The aldermen also voted to remain in the Cape Fear Regional Planning Organization. The city was considering joining planning organizations of Wilmington or the Grand Strand, out of Myrtle Beach, but the WMPO announced it would no longer admit additional municipalities earlier this year. 

With only Grand Strand left, the aldermen decided to remain where they are due to a lack of commonalities with the organization.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at

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