February 28, 2020

County Commits $75,000 to Defend Sign Code Enforcement

Metal dealer claims fines over employee holding sign violate its First Amendment rights.

By Chris Eversole

A metal dealer is suing Alachua County over its code enforcement policy on handheld signs, claiming it was a violation of the First Amendment.

Precious Metals Group, based in Jacksonville, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Gainesville on Feb. 15, alleging that the county code unconstitutionally interferes with free speech and is vague in distinguishing which signs are legal and which signs are not.

The county commission voted 4-0 Tuesday to pay constitutional law expert Gary Edinger of Gainesville up to $75,000 to help defend itself. The money will come from the county’s self-insurance fund.

“Sign law is an ever-changing arena based on people finding new ways to get attention,” said County Attorney Dave Wagner. “We need to defend our efforts to minimize visual clutter.”

If the county loses it case, it will have to pay the company’s legal fees, Wagner said.

The suit is about a sign that Precious Metals Group used in front of its business at the northwest corner of SW 13th Street and Williston Road, which is in the unincorporated area of the county. The business is now closed, Wagner said.

Most cases of people holding signs or dressing as mascots for businesses are located inside the Gainesville City limits, and the control of such signs is in the city’s hands, Wagner said.

A county code enforcement officer issued a notice of code violation against Precious Metals Group on May 22. The Code Enforcement Board filed against the company on Aug. 2, levying a fine of $100 a day for each day the violation continued.

The county issued a notice of a repeat violation on Aug. 7, and the Code Enforcement Board levied a fine of $500 a day starting Sept. 6.
The signs violate the county’s prohibition of signs off the site of a business and signs in the public right-of-way, the area between a roadway and actual area in which a business is allowed to operate, Wagner said.
A photo that the county attorney’s office included in its presentation shows an employee holding a “We Buy Gold” sign at the BP service station that is in the same shopping center as the metal dealer, apparently not in the right-of-way.
The county didn’t specifically discuss this type of situation when it updated its sign ordinance seven years ago, Wagner says. “We didn’t talk about people standing and waving signs, but we do read the ordinance as saying they’re prohibited,” he said.
Commission Chairman Mike Byerly asked Wagner how the county handled political signs.

Wagner said that most people holding signs do so inside the city limits and that such signs had not become an issue for the county. The county does seize political signs in the right-of-way and stores them so candidates can retrieve them, Wagner added.

As it prepares for the case, the county will review its sign code to determine if its language needs to be changed regarding people advertising in front of businesses, Wagner said.


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