By CYRUS LEVESQUE
BRISTOL — As the 2006 election races heat up, Vermonters are looking for ways to support their chosen candidate or just speak their minds.
But like many Vermont towns, Bristol’s zoning ordinances control when and how such signs can be displayed. Seeing that some Bristol residents have put up signs in violation of those ordinances, the selectboard is planning to clamp down.
“We have a state without billboards for a reason,” said selectboard Chairman Warren Baker at the board’s meeting on June 12.
After that meeting town administrator Bob Hall at the direction of the board asked three residents to take down signs, and they complied. Having any signs up right now would be a violation, because the ordinance forbids people from putting up signs more than 60 days before the election to which they refer.
The issue was brought to the board’s attention by selectboard member and state Rep. David Sharpe.
“I wanted to review what the Bristol ordinance was, and have the Bristol ordinance adequately enforced if it was not being followed,” Sharpe said in an interview after the meeting.
With only three offending signs as far as board members knew, the problem remains minor. However, the political season is approaching, so the selectboard felt it should address the issue now. “I don’t want to get in a situation where we have 20 or 30 of these,” Sharpe said.
Regulations of political signs exist to ensure that they are “in harmony with the orderly development of the district,” according to the Bristol zoning regulation’s general statement about all signs.
Section 790.3 of Bristol’s zoning regulations reads: “Political Signs: Signs exercising the political right of free speech and advocating a particular outcome in an upcoming vote of the town checklist may be displayed without a zoning permit for up to 60 days prior to such a vote, and shall be removed no later than seven days after said vote. Such signs shall not be greater than six square feet in area.”
Bristol imposes various limitations on the size of other signs, ranging from two square feet for directional signs to 40 square feet for most types of business signs. A political sign can be displayed for a longer and more flexible period than any other type of temporary sign, except for signs related to construction projects, which are permitted for the duration of the project.
Regulation of such signs varies from town to town. Some, like those in Vergennes and Middlebury do not mention political signs at all in their ordinances. Others, like New Haven, have a number of rules regarding placement, appearance and use, but do not single out political signs from other types.
State law requires that political signs be taken down within two weeks after the election.
According to Bristol town administrator Bob Hall, this type of regulation is relatively common. “I would guess that most towns have some kind of ordinance that controls political signs like this,” he said.
Bristol resident and Planning Commission Chairman Peter Grant was one of those asked to take down an early-season political sign. He promptly took down his sign supporting Rep. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for U.S. Senate. Grant agrees with the idea of the regulation.
“In the past we had these gigantic signs,” he said. “We need some kind of control.”