South Charlotte

Towns may not control signs

With elections less than a month away, campaigns signs are sprouting throughout the county, even in places where local ordinances forbid them.

There's not a lot local officials can do: Towns and municipalities no longer have jurisdiction over some campaign signs.

In August, the N.C. General Assembly enacted Senate Bill 315, allowing campaign signs along state roads even if those roads are in towns with ordinances forbidding such signs. That means the ruling covers most major roads and thoroughfares.

"Before the statute, we were able to use Matthews sign standards on state- and town-maintained streets within our jurisdiction. Now, as town officials, we have no jurisdiction on state streets or rights-of way where political signs are concerned," said Matthews Planning Director Kathi Ingrish.

The state standards are more relaxed than many town ordinances, and enforcement is handled by the state.

When a half-dozen people called Mint Hill's code enforcement officer Margie Nichols to complain about mayoral candidate Jean Bonner's signs, Nichols had to pass the buck to the state.

"If the sign is on a Mint Hill-maintained road and it looks like it's in violation, I will go out and take a look. But if it's on a state-maintained road, they need to call (the North Carolina Department of Transportation)," Nichols said.

After investigation, N.C. DOT District Engineer Lewis Mitchell determined Bonner's signs were too large, and as of Wednesday afternoon he had put them in line to be removed. Mitchell said they should be gone in a few days.

But folks weren't just concerned about the size; they were bothered by the two cloth American flags Bonner had attached. The flags flew in the rain and the dark and at times lay in the dirt.

Though there is no enforceable law about using the flag in this manner, the United States Flag Code - www.senate.gov/reference/resources - outlines flag etiquette.

"I would hope that someone seeking public office would comply with those guidelines. You have a right to do these things because you live in America, but it doesn't make it right," said Bill Dixon, a former Matthews commissioner, 12-year Army veteran and chairman of the planned Armed Forces Museum and Archives that will be in Mint Hill Park on Fairview - directly across from one of Bonner's signs.

Mitchell said if a sign is found out of compliance, someone from his department will remove it, and the owner can retrieve it from one of the department's maintenance sheds.

Other than removal, there is no penalty.

In Pineville, several candidates have reported their signs are disappearing.

"We've had some issues with campaign signs walking away. It's an investment that the candidates have made, and it's not fair to the individual," said Pineville administrator Mike Rose.

Rose says that once the sign disappearances were reported to the police, he hasn't received any more complaints and hopes the issue has been resolved.

Mitchell warns against taking political signs down, whether or not they are in front of your property.

The law says permission must be obtained from a property owner before a sign is placed in the right-of-way in front of a residence, business or religious institution.

If a sign is placed without the property owner's permission, Mitchell says, you still need to call his office. State law makes it a misdemeanor for a resident to remove a political sign from the public right-of-way.

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