The Hopewell Township Committee meeting September 18 featured a work session to start to consider revising the sign ordinance. Director of Community Development/Engineer, James Hutzelmann had been asked to do some preliminary work on revision to the sign ordinance and he presented his findings, which the Committee had not yet seen. Deputy Mayor Courtney Peters-Manning and Committee member Uma Purandare both asked for more time to review those proposed changes prior to making any in depth comments on the issue.
Mayor Michael Ruger asked Township Attorney, Steve Goodell for an explanation of the Constitutional issues that might surround the adoption of a revised sign ordinance. Goodell explained a surprising, unanimous, 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona that governs the regulations categorizing signs by the type of information they convey. The high court said that different standards for signs based on their type of information are not allowed under the First Amendment and the U.S. Constitution.
“What the Supreme Court said in 2015 was, that …if you are looking at the sign to determine the content, itself, then you are discriminating among different types of signs,” stated Goodell. “In this case, a directional sign could not be regulated differently than a political sign, which could not be regulated differently than an ideological sign.”
Ruger asked whether decorative signs are included in this kind of regulation. Goodell countered with the example of a sign that says, “I am the proud parent of a Hopewell Valley student.”
“I understand that we don’t do content, but we do live in interesting times,” stated Ruger. “If somebody put a sign that said fill in the name of your least favorite politician, ideology, or anything else, is that something that we could regulate in any way?”
Goodell shared that Princeton has that regulation, but he does not know how they could enforce the rule.
Then, during the public commentary period, Harvey Lester, a Hopewell Township resident, spoke on the question of the sign ordinance and said that the old sign ordinance is unenforceable.
“If you are going to pass an ordinance that is unenforceable then don’t waste your time,” said Lester. “We don’t need a new one. My particular interest is in political signs.”
Lester applauded the Committee for addressing the issue and pleaded with them to include an enforcement mechanism that would allow him to be free of sign pollution.
“Just for the record I did not touch this section at all for this very reason,” said Hutzelmann. “It is very thorny. I am not sure how it can or should be improved or what it can say.”