Back to the drawing board for sign law

“I don’t know why you want to make a broad law,” Paul Shepherd commented during Friday’s public hearing on a proposed sign law.

Few Islanders attended the second public hearing on a new town sign law Friday but they had a lot to say.

“Make them the smallest dimension feasible.”

“Making them so small that they’re useless is a foolish approach.”

“You didn’t have to go as far as you went. It’s too broad.”

“Putting a sign up in one place, affects everybody in the neighborhood.”

“The law does not address the majority request of the Island.”

“I think this has been the most unfortunate waste of everybody’s time. Let it all get focused back on the real estate people.”

Town Attorney Laury Dowd made it clear that the law would limit property owners to posting one political sign — so long as no other sign is posted — during election season. Also, comments made during the hearing about who speaks for the majority of Islanders and whose opinions should be weighed more got a quick response from Town Board members.

The board did not vote on the proposed law and Councilwoman Chris Lewis, who presided over the hearing in Supervisor Jim Dougherty’s absence, said Tuesday that the law would likely be revised again. 


The proposed law aired Friday would establish rules for all temporary signs, which are defined as “any sign, handbill or poster” not intended to be placed permanently. The law would allow a property owner to display no more than one temporary sign, at least 10 feet from a road right-of-way, with several exceptions for non-profit events and sales of home produce. A sign may not be illuminated and may not exceed 1 square foot if it is a one-sided sign. If it is a two-sided sign, the total area of both sides of the sign must not exceed 1 square foot.

The rules apply not just to real estate signs but to all temporary signs, including political signs.

The current sign law explicitly allows “For Sale” or “For Rent” by owner signs, which has been enforced as a prohibition against commercial real estate signs of any kind. A criminal case against Realtor Penelope Moore was withdrawn by the town earlier this year after town officials conceded that the law on the books was not constitutional.


Those who were critical of the law Friday had very different reasons.

The hearing began with the reading of a letter from the Shelter Island Association, signed by President Tim Hogue, commending the board for attempting to balance free speech rights with widespread opposition to signs. The SIA asked the town to include a registration procedure for temporary signs and to make the signs “the smallest dimensions feasible.”

Former Supervisor Al Kilb Jr., whose administration considered but did not change the current sign law, said, “Look at the signs on Shelter Island that the government puts up. The most horrible, ugly twisted pieces of garbage you ever could imagine are planted from one end of our town to the other.” He criticized the law that government was preparing to impose. “Making them so small that they’re useless … is a foolish approach.” He commented on the first sign he ever used as a contractor — a hand-painted scrap of plywood from the dump he moved from job to job. “You could see it from a reasonable distance … I think some people need signs, and I think other people want signs so they can gather information.” Limiting the time a sign is posted is reasonable, he added, but the 1-square foot size is too small to be effective.

“I agree with everything that Alfred said,” Jean Lawless began her comments. “I think this has been the most unfortunate waste of everybody’s time … Let it all get focused back on the real estate people” who are in competition with each other. Does everybody realize how big 1 foot by 1 foot is? It’s tiny.” A two-sided sign on a corner property would be half that size, she added.

Paul Shepherd echoed the call to make the law about real estate signs. “The fact of the matter is, the Supreme Court has reviewed and upheld laws that regulate real estate signs,” he said. One such case, Linmark Associates, Inc. vs. Willingboro, was cited by Attorney Dowd at an earlier hearing in arguing that the current law is unconstitutional. “We don’t have to go into all the other areas that this law goes into and that’s my objection to it.”

For tradesmen, signs are an expression of quality and individuality, Mr. Shepherd went on. The law is too broad, he added; it can and should be narrowly tailored.

“Freedom of speech is the wetlands of the Constitution, if you can visualize that. It’s the place where everything that’s good about our society spawns from and it’s protected very vigorously by the Supreme Court for that reason. And this law, you’ve got your big feet all over it.”


Marc Wein said that he agreed with Mr. Kilb’s comment about government signs. “There are a lot of ugly signs all over the Island … that being said, there’s no reason to use that as a justification to put more up … By somebody putting a sign up in one place, it affects everybody in the neighborhood.” But he added that if the law could address just real estate signs, that might make everybody happy.

Mr. Shepherd reiterated that the Supreme Court allows laws specifically regulating real estate signs, as did an earlier version of a new town sign law aired in February.

“It seems like this is a legitimate argument,” Councilman Glenn Waddington commented. Ms. Dowd acknowledged that the board could return to the earlier version of the law, which explicitly regulated real estate signs.

“Where is the sentiment of the public?” Don Bindler asked when he took the floor. Referring to comments made at the previous public hearing and a petition from the majority of Island real estate agents, he answered his own question: “That signs be limited to the maximum extent possible.”

He acknowledged the town’s challenge in drafting a law that meets the needs of the Island but keeps the town out of court. But he added, “The law that you have brought back in compromise to this, I believe, does not address the majority request of the Island … The purpose is not to make the signs amenable, it’s to make the signs something that one is discouraged from doing.”

Mr. Bindler also advocated for a maximum height for signs, and echoed the SIA position on requiring property owners to register signs before posting them.


Mr. Kilb commented, “To assume that the Shelter Island Association represents the bulk of the people of Shelter Island is the biggest misconception that there could possibly be.”

“When we have a public hearing like this one,” Ms. Lewis responded, three or four people speak, “each claiming to represent a large group of people, but there’s never a large group of people coming to defend themselves.” 

“We hear so many different things from so many different people,” Mr. Waddington added, “they don’t necessarily have to come to a meeting. They know where to find us.”

In response to these comments, Mr. Bindler stated, “I don’t think the point of view that’s expressed on the ferry or the one [when] Ed or Chris and I may shoot the breeze outside the post office, should have the validity in terms of effecting public position, when they take the time and have two public hearings.”Most of our input comes that way, Ms. Lewis said.