Lawn sign debate in Westport gets heated

WESTPORT — The signs were all there and that is the problem.

Chip Stephens thinks there are too many lawn signs around town and because he’s a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) and heads the commission’s enforcement sub-committee, took it upon himself eight years ago to start enforcing the town’s temporary sign policy.

“Above all, we don’t allow commercial signs because if we allow that we’re going to look like Norwalk or Fairfield,” Stephens said, adding signs for advertising charitable events are limited to a maximum of 15 and may be erected no more than two weeks before the event and must be removed within two days following the event.

Political signs on public property are exempt from the temporary sign policy because they are considered an expression of free speech, the sign policy states.

“Some people decide the rules don’t fit them and get as many signs out there as they can. They just put signs on every intersection and it’s an abomination,” Stephens said.

Two to three times a month, Stephens and his fellow zoning member and enforcement committee co-chairman Al Gratrix head out in Stephens station wagon and take down signs that violate the policy, he said.

The prevalence of signs promoting commercial ventures most irritates Stephens, he said, but he’s also annoyed when signs advertising charitable events don’t get a permit from Town Hall to be placed on public property and follow the 15-sign maximum.

Stephens said he recently took down three signs advertising the Library book sale and three signs advertising the Westport Downtown Merchants Association for not following the sign policy.

Stephens’ action frustrated library book sale co-chair Dick Lowenstein.

“If somebody violates a P&Z regulation there’s a process for filing a complaint,” said Lowenstein. “If you see a sign in a store window that violates a regulation, you don’t tear it down, you file a complaint.”

Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Matthew Mandell concurred.

“The unilateral removal of these signs is problematic at best,” he said.

Several leaders of local nonprofits, including Lowenstein, Mandell and representatives of Wakeman Town Farm, the Westport Historical Society, and Homes with Hope, attended the enforcement committee’s July 18 meeting to voice their frustration about the policy.

“Lawn signs are the most economical way for nonprofits to promote their events. These events are the heart and soul of our community,” Mandell said. “Having to mark down where each of your signs is just bureaucratic nonsense.”

Part of the issue with town’s temporary sign policy stems from the difficulty of enforcement, a statement from the office of First Selectman Jim Marpe read.

“The P&Z does not have the staff to enforce that regulation, so in the past and at various times, one or two of the P&Z commissioners have taken on that role to enforce the regulations, and they have removed the signs,” the statement reads.

Moreover, the zoning regulation around temporary signs and the selectman’s office policy on sign’s don’t line-up, said zoning commissioner and sign sub-committee head Cathy Walsh.

“It’s long overdue that we looked at the sign regulation,” Walsh said, adding her committee plans to do so in the month ahead.; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1