Federal Suit Filed Against S.P. Over Billboard Ordinance
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
A sign company is suing Southern Pines in federal court claiming its sign ordinances are unconstitutional.
Gibson Outdoor Displays, of Aberdeen, is in the business of "posting signs to be used by individuals, businesses, churches, community groups and civic organizations," according to a complaint filed in late March.
Pinehurst attorney Tom Van Camp joined with an Atlanta attorney, E. Adam Webb, to file the lawsuit, which claims town sign restrictions violate rights protected under the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act.
The law is content-based, they contend, because it prohibits any sign referring to something not actually located on the same premises where a sign is erected. That makes it unconstitutional, they contend in papers filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro.
On a community blog on the The Pilot's website, Southern Pines Town Councilman Chris Smithson said the town is apparently facing a "sign code shakedown."
"We have a beautiful community," Smithson wrote in his blog posting. "That beauty is directly connected with our livelihood and happiness. If I have anything to do with it, we will stand firm and make it clear to Mr. Gibson and other locals involved (Van Camp, Gessner, etc.), as well as their out-of-state billboard-specialist attorney, that the Supreme Court has upheld our right to ban billboards and that we don't want them here."
Reached by phone Thursday, Smithson added, "It's clear the people of Southern Pines don't want billboards."
Gibson wanted to erect two signs on a large vacant lot next to Outback Steakhouse on U.S. 15-501 and one with the El Vaquero restaurant on U.S. 1 after making deals with the owners of those pieces of property.
The company submitted sign application packages to the town last November and said in its -federal complaint that each one contained "all information and documentation required" by town regulations.
The town planning staff then denied each of Gibson's permit requests, because "the content of the proposed signs did not relate to the premises upon which they were to be erected." The suit contends that the town's reason violates Gibson's constitutional rights.
Gibson appealed that decision to the Board of Adjustment, but on Feb. 24, the board turned down the appeal for the same reason: Southern Pines bans signs with off-premise messages.
The suit contends the town's permit requirement is an improper restraint of speech, noting that the ordinance imposes no time limit on the municipality to respond to a permit request.
"This allows town officials to unduly delay, and thus effectively deny, the right to speak," Gibson says in its complaint. "This court should declare the sign ordinance invalid in its entirety and enjoin its enforcement. Additionally, because no valid regulation prohibits Gibson's requested signs, the town should be ordered to allow the signs to be posted."
Gibson wants the court to throw out the law, allow it to put up the signs and order the town to pay the costs of the lawsuit. It also seeks actual, compensatory and general damages. It asks for a jury trial on all matters not resolved by the judge.
Contact John Chappell by e-mail at email@example.com.
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