Supreme Court ruling sends realtors scrambling for creative marketing

Supreme Court ruling sends realtors scrambling for creative marketing
Signs placed in the public right-of-way are illegal and violators are subject to a fine.

Fair warning: The public right-of-way is off limits for all those “little signs.” You know the ones – garage sale, I Buy Junk Cars, lost dog.

Those signs – called snipe signs – have been illegal, unless they’re on private property, since 2005 when a zero-tolerance policy for litter on public property was enacted. If the signs are on public right-of-way – the space between the sidewalk and the street – violators are subject to a fine of $55 per sign.

More commonly, the signs just mysteriously disappear when someone throws them in the trash, and as far as the city is concerned everyone is welcome to do that.

So, if you’re having a garage sale, you are welcome to put a sign in your front yard or, with their permission, a neighbor’s yard, but if you put it in the right of way in front of your house or at the end of your street to alert passing motorists, you’re violating the law. And the fine is $55.

The one group that has gotten a pass – up until now – is realtors.

In 2013, realtors were given an exemption for “open house” signs through Ordinance 2013-0262. At-Large Councilman John Crescimbeni said the rationale was that the real estate industry was still recovering from recession and were dependent on the signs to market houses.

There were rules. Under the exemption, realtors had to get an annual $30 permit, good for up to five signs, and put the permit number on the signs. The signs had to be set out no earlier than late Friday afternoon and be picked up by Sunday afternoon.

But, no more. The exemption expired June 30, 2016 and won’t be reinstated because of a 2015 Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Gilbert, Crescimbeni said.

Clyde Reed, the pastor of a small church, sued the town of Gilbert, Ariz., when he was cited for posting signs advertising church services at an elementary school. The town’s sign law had stricter requirements for church signs than other signs.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that signs cannot be regulated based on their content, Crescimbeni said.

The decision doesn’t have any wiggle room, he said. “I have two options. No one puts signs in the right of way or to allow everybody to put signs in the right of way,” Crescimbeni said. “It wouldn’t matter what was on the sign. It could be a ‘for sale’ sign or hate speech.

“I know the realtors are upset,” he said. “I’ve had calls from realtors wanting me to redo the ordinance I originally introduced in 2013. But there’s no way we can redo it.”

District 6 Councilman Matt Schellenberg introduced a bill March 28 that would have granted weekend exemptions for signs, but then withdrew it because it would have violated the Supreme Court decision.

Another bill introduced at the same time by Schellenberg would give events – like the River Run – an exemption for things like detour signs that affect the flow of traffic. It is likely to survive because it affects government functions. The bill, 2017-0230, is currently in committee with Land Use and Zoning where a public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, May 2, and with the Neighborhoods, Community Investments & Services Committee (NCIS). A public hearing is scheduled before City Council on Tuesday, May 9.

Although the ordinance to exempt open house signs expired nearly a year ago, realtors are now scrambling to find new ways to market their houses.

What’s at stake? In 2016, 937 houses sold in San Marco, San Jose and St. Nicholas. That had the potential for a lot of open houses.

“We have always put out a limited number of signs for open houses and picked them up. That’s the way the majority of people find out about houses,” said Sheron Willson of Berkshire Hathaway. “This is going to hurt our customers.

“We’ll make adjustments. Use the internet more, do more personal marketing. We’ll work around it. Whatever it takes. If it’s the law, it’s the law,” she said.

Lee Norville of Norville Realty said the restriction “inhibits our right to do business. They are the bloodline of our business. It will be very hard to hold open houses without them.”

“Signage is what drives people into open houses,” said Anita Vining of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Florida Network Realty. “I don’t like the litter but people should be responsible and remove them or get fined. I understand we have to have regulations.”

Vining said she has always used the signs as well as the internet to advertise open houses.

“We post on Facebook, realtor.com, Zillow and Berkshire Hathaway,” Vining said. “Signage with balloon gets the attention of those driving by. People who may have no interest in buying a house might stop to see a house and fall in love with it because they saw a sign.”

The realtors said they will be asking homeowners for permission to put open house signs on their property. But they also might get creative – decorating cars or getting people to wave signs.

They also wonder whether the sign code will be enforced, noting that it is erratically enforced now.

There are currently three sign enforcement volunteers, who are trained by code enforcement officers on sign enforcement and writing citations, according to Tia Ford, public information officer for the City of Jacksonville. “Code Enforcement wrote 1,507 citations for illegal snipe signs in Fiscal Year 2016 [October 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016],” she said.

Crescimbeni said the city can deputize citizens to issue citations in the same way citizens can issue citations to people who park illegally in handicapped parking spaces. They can also use the free MyJax mobile app to report blight, such as illegal signs.

And then there’s the annual city buy-back for tires and snipe signs Saturday, May 6 at EverBank Field. The city will pay $2 per tire for up to 20 tires and 50 cents a sign for up to 40 signs.

Interested parties can apply to become a sign enforcement volunteer through the Office of Volunteer Services (email [email protected]). Once they’ve gone through that process, they will be trained by code enforcement officers on sign enforcement and writing citations, said Ford.


By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

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