Earlier this year, Woodstock’s Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) updated the town’s Zoning Regulations pertaining to signs. This was a major, multi-year, and mulit-faceted project. My thanks to my fellow Commissioners, Town Hall and other professional staff, the business community, and to many members of the public who participated with the PZC in a collaborative and productive effort.
Why was it done?
First, it is necessary to be current on the legal landscape of zoning, be it by actions of the Legislature or by rulings of the courts. With this in mind, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Reed et al. v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona et al. required action by Woodstock’s PZC so that the town’s sign regulations would be consistent with changes in the law. The Supreme Court noted, “Government regulation of speech is content based if a law applies to particular speech because of the topic discussed or the idea or message expressed”. This is a Free Speech issue. A municipality cannot necessarily easily limit the content of what a sign says (its wording, pictures, and symbols), although it may limit where a sign is displayed, during what time, and in what form (size, lighting, etc…) using a content-neutral method. Furthermore, government cannot prohibit a person from expressing a viewpoint, even if government disagrees with that viewpoint or does not like the person expressing a viewpoint. So, given the legal, constitutional issues at play with sign regulations, Woodstock’s PZC obtained legal advice as to what needed to be changed with sign regulations.
Second, it is important to recognize that regulations should be the least burdensome possible while still maintaining proper effectiveness and purpose. The local business community expressed concerns about limitations of sign regulations that were not helpful to local businesses. For example, the old regulations prohibited window signs, which are used commonly by businesses. As part of an ongoing effort to promote an economic presence and future for Woodstock, the PZC reviewed with local business people and the Woodstock Business Association the sign regulations. Reasonable and responsible updates in the regulations were made.
Third, it is important to have regulations that are easy to understand, easy to use, and easy to enforce when necessary. Woodstock’s PZC took a keen eye to the sign regulations and endeavored to improve them in these regards. This way, people and businesses alike can know what to do with signs and town government can know what is permitted and prohibited, without requiring lots of time, effort, and money to figure things out.
All throughout the process of reviewing and updating the sign regulations, Woodstock’s PZC actively maintained the fundamental reasons for zoning regulations: to promote public safety, health, and welfare. The authority of a municipality to regulate signs in order to promote these purposes is well-established law. How a municipality does it is a different thing. Woodstock’s PZC took a thoughtful, careful, and common sense approach to find a workable balance. As I am fond of saying, it is not just what one does that matters, but also how one does it that matters.
It will take an ongoing effort to keep current the sign regulations. There in lies the challenge, and the excitement, on something we all take for granted – signs – and something we all must keep secure – freedom of speech and expression.