Garage sale sign placement problematic in area communities

don heinzman web 2013Garage sales have become a staple in many communities. People go garage “saling” Fridays and Saturdays. Some communities, like Rosemount and Burnsville, even have citywide garage sales.

Messing around with these garage sales and location of their signage, however, may not be good politics.

Within seven days, some estimate 220 people will have garage and estate sales in the Twin Cities area.

Communities have sign ordinances that cover where to place garage sale signs, but few are reluctant to crack down on violators who stick their signs in the public rights of way. After all, a lot of work went into making or obtaining those signs that are vital for a successful sale. During these tough economic times, some garage merchants need that extra money.

Garage sales also are a good way for those who want to get rid of “trash” that some might deem “treasure.”

In Elk River, some residents are upset because the City Council decided to remove all signs, including signs for garage sales, from the right of way, as required by the ordinance.

Fire Chief John Cunningham, who oversees the code enforcement, is in a hot spot. He’s enforcing the ordinance that does not allow any exceptions for sign placement, even for garage sales.

He doesn’t have garage sale sign police. He has a code enforcer who, among other duties, removes a sign if it’s in the right of way and takes it to the city maintenance facility, where the owner can retrieve it.

Cunningham said garage sale signs are legal in Elk River when placed on private property, typically 10 to 15 feet from the curb. All signs are forbidden in public rights of way, including along county and state highways. If it were legal to place signs on public property including the right of way, residents could find displeasing signs, protected by the First Amendment, in front of their homes.

“I think we might have upset residents when they find signs in front of their homes advertising or promoting issues or items they are not fond of,” Cunningham said.

Recently the Elk River City Council discussed the ordinance and decided in a close vote to enforce it. This is in line with one of the city’s major goals to enhance the beauty of the city. The problem is people leave the signs up after the sale, tarnishing the city’s appearance. The council agreed to have some educational materials developed to inform people about the ordinance.

Mayor John Dietz said this is a fight the city cannot win. Council members talked about educating the public this year and enforcing the ordinance the next.

Dietz, who wanted the ordinance to be enforced part of the week, was out-voted.

He predicted: “I just think we’re asking for trouble here.” Judging from some letters to the editor and the local buzz, the mayor is correct.

Gwen Smith wrote a letter explaining how she bought an ad and paid money for some nice signs, as usual, but not as many people showed up. She discovered the city had taken her sign down and was told politely the signs were on public land.

She said: “I ask who is the public? Aren’t we entitled to drive on the roadways, walk on the public sidewalks and therefore use the little strip of dirt alongside it for summertime sales?”

Cunningham said they did a survey of surrounding communities and most prohibit signs on the rights of way, on poles and in intersections.

The City Council isn’t against garage sales and signage. They are enforcing the ordinance and making no exceptions.

The mayor said: “There’s a lot of people who consider this a hot-button issue, … a lot who have garage sales, and this isn’t going to go away.”

Stay tuned.

Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers and a member of the ECM Editorial Board. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.