Real Estate Signs Still Included in Ban in Watertown

Properties continue to be a popular investment option across the United States. With this continuing trend comes the persistent problem of figuring out where an agent can legally place an open house or for sale sign. At its core, the posting of signage falls under the scope of free speech. Yet cooperative living in modern society means balancing free speech with aesthetic standards and public right to safety.

While many realtors have long since delved into other marketing channels, yard signs remain a staple in the business as they help drive traffic while promoting the brokerage or brand. This is why it’s essential for agents to be familiar with local regulations and laws about signage. Steep fines or fees can affect revenue and productivity, after all.

Recommended Ban Under Local Laws in November

Last month, the Watertown Plan Commission recommended the prohibition of real estate signs from public rights-of-way. This has led to realtors gathering in the Watertown City Hall Council Chambers to voice out their opposition to the proposed ordinance.

In the first reading, agents were allowed to give their input regarding the recommendation. One of their concerns was that restrictions in the placement of placards would negatively impact business for both buyers and sellers as signs would not be as visible from the curb.

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Representatives of several firms also stated that signage continues to be a primary market-mover, particularly in locales that mostly have boulevard areas. Additionally, they expressed that with the incorporation of Quick Response (QR) codes signage would need to be more accessible to prospective buyers and their smartphones for scanning.

Though none of the audience members voiced their support of the ban, Mayor Sarah Caron and city staff shared their written comments in the meeting. It was stated that allowing property signs would give an unfair advantage to the private realty industry over others such as house painting or construction services.

The mayor also wrote that such business signs did not serve a public purpose and were not necessary along the public right-of-way. They were scheduled to hold a public hearing and council vote on the revision in December.

Unanimous Council Rejection on Exemption

The Watertown City Council heard a recap of a United States Supreme Court case earlier this month. After which, they came to the unanimous decision of rejecting the exemption of real estate signs from the ban. At present, that decision concluded the process that began in November.

On the night of December 4th, Senior Planner Luke Muller of the First District Association of Local Government Planning and Policy Development presented a 2015 US Supreme Court ruling that essentially said municipalities couldn’t regulate the signage displayed in public rights-of-way unless they were obscene. Doing otherwise would be a violation of free speech as outlined in the First Amendment.

Council President Bruce Buhler said that the municipality could instead regulate based on placement, manner, and time. Thus, if one type of sign were to be allowed, all others would have had to be exempted as well. So as to avoid all kinds of signage from cluttering rights-of-way, the council rejected the ordinance.

Alternatives May Be Offered to Realtors

Despite the ban, the council expressed that they were open to compromise and perhaps bring forth another ordinance revision. This may include allowing signage to be posted in easily viewable areas without infringing rights-of-way.

A silver lining is that the council did approve of another proposed revision. This allowed buildings measuring 50 feet or five stories to use up to 5 percent of their surface to display signs and not have those count against their allowable signage quota placed by the city. The proposal comes as Prairie Lakes Healthcare System and other several established institutions undergo a large-scale expansion project.


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