State law lifts local lawn sign limits

This year, your neighbors' front yards could look like the Democratic or Republican national convention -- a sea of signs.

The city used to limit lawn signs' number and size. However, a new state law preempts those limits. That means property owners can put up as many signs as they want during election season -- and erect billboard-sized odes to John Kerry or George Bush if they can figure out how to keep them upright.

Proponents say it is a free speech issue.

The new law went into effect Sunday, Aug. 1.

Minneapolis code 543.260 limited residential property and buildings in office-residential districts to one political sign per street face. It limited signs to a maximum of 8 square feet (for example, 2 feet high by 4 feet wide). Nonresidential districts could have one sign not to exceed 32 square feet.

The city's size restriction has actually been moot since 1990, thanks to a prior state preemption. People don't appear to have exploited the freedom, said Blake Graham, the city's manager of zoning and planning controls. That's one reason he doesn't think many nuisance complaints will result from the new state law.

"Generally, the political campaigns don't want their candidate to be associated with a problem property," Graham said.

Yet he added a cautionary note: "Who knows? Especially in the political arena, sometimes the eccentrics come out of the woodwork. It is a little like Halloween."

Allowing multiple signs makes sense, Graham said. People might want one presidential sign, another for a congressional candidate, still another for a state House of Representatives candidate, and so on.

Still, as the new law is written, if people want 16 John Kerry signs or 16 George Bush signs in their yard, they could have them, he said.

The state law's impact on other city sign limits is less clear.

For instance, Minneapolis prohibits political signs in the public right-of-way, including on boulevard trees and poles. That restriction still seems reasonable, Graham said. The right-of-way is not personal property, and signs can cause traffic-visibility problems.

The city code also requires people to keep political signs at least 8 feet from other property, which Graham also believes is reasonable.

If someone sued to put a sign near the property line or on the boulevard, the outcome could go either way, Graham said. The court could throw out all city rules, arguing the state clearly intended to take over political sign regulations.

Andy Carlson, the city's lead zoning inspector, said his staff receives sporadic sign complaints during election season. City enforcement is complaint-driven.

"They always call because they don't like the sign," he said.

State Rep. Peter Adolphson, R-Minnetonka and Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie authored the bill. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed it March 26.

Adolphson said he and colleagues have had problems with cities limiting and even removing campaign signs.

One of his supporters had a corner lot and wanted two signs, but an Eden Prairie ordinance prohibited it, he said.

"That is a little ridiculous," Adolphson said. "This is basically political speech and freedom of speech. If the homeowner is willing to let you put up signs -- whether it is a corner lot or wherever, the city shouldn't be trying to take them down, for aesthetic value or anything else."

The law says property owners must remove political signs within 10 days of the general election -- Nov. 12 this year.