Sept. 29, 2018 — As the gears of another election cycle churn life into the political machine, the colorful by-product of political ads has blossomed once again along Florence’s roads and fences. The tradition of lawn sign advertising runs deep in the United States and road-side inundation is now common practice in this bi-annual competition for the public’s eye.
For all their prevalence, studies on the effectiveness of lawn-sign political ads have arrived at conflicting results, with some suggesting the pay-off is too low to warrant the money or effort. Some evidence exists, however, that candidates in low-information, local elections can score significant points at the ballot box with name recognition alone. Regardless of data, the battle for attention is in full swing and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) has issued a reminder of acceptable practices.
Though the agency does not regulate content, there are state restrictions for any signs posted on trees, utility poles or fence posts within Oregon state highway rights-of-ways. Widths of rights-of-ways vary, with some measuring as narrowly as curb-to-curb, while others extend as far as 200 feet beyond the pavement.
ODOT encourages those posting signs to contact the department if they are unsure of their sign’s legality. Improperly placed signs are removed and held by the local ODOT district maintenance office, though sign owners are usually notified prior to confiscation.
Throughout the state, permits are required for signs posted in exchange for compensation, which includes not only money but anything of value, such as forgiveness of debt. Signs which are not at a place of business or other activity open to the public, such as crop fields and vacant lots, may also require an ODOT permit. There are also restrictions on illumination, flashing lights and other characteristics which may cause hazardous distractions for drivers.
However, political signs typically meet the criteria for temporary signs, which are defined as being posted for a maximum of 60 days in a year, limited to 12 square feet in area, and not on a permanent base. For signs of greater size and duration, a variance request can be submitted and are often approved within one or two business days.
Additionally, in Oregon, political signs are not allowed within 100 feet of a voting location on Election Day. ODOT adheres to these rules with some rigidity, because a failure to effectively control signs puts Oregon at risk of losing up to 10 percent of federal highway aid — amounting to as much as $45 million per year.
“We do have active violations almost all of the time,” said Jill Hendrickson, Program Coordinator of ODOT’s Outdoor Advertising Sign Program. “We do our very best to cover the state and make sure that people are handling their signs in the fashion that they’re supposed to.”
Election cycles are a time for increased vigilance on this front, but Hendrickson finds that political advertising is rarely a problem.
“Most of our politicians that have been in elections before are aware … of what they are allowed and not allowed to do,” she said.
If in violation, “they are usually very fast to respond.”
Many political signs are found on private property, however, which exempts them from state temporary sign restrictions and, within city limits, brings them under the purview of municipal law.
City codes may differ on what is allowed. In Eugene, for example, signs on private property are limited to 12 square feet or less in area during a period — from 60 days before to five days after — any public election. Florence city ordinances, by contrast, allow political signs no larger than six square feet in area and five feet in height without permits. These signs may be erected up to 90 days before — and no later than five days after — a public election, though signs with permits may stay up year-round.
The most common violations in Florence are excessive size and placement in rights-of-ways. Florence Public Works makes occasional code enforcement sweeps, keeping violators’ signs in the Public Works building for up to 30 days as they wait to be reclaimed.
Because rights-of-way vary in width, government property is often a good indicator of where it ends.
“The best way to tell where the right-of-way is, is to look for infrastructure,” said Florence Planning Director Wendy FarleyCampbell. “You can do that by looking at poles or utility boxes.”
After elections, it is also common for signs to exceed their five-day limit.
“People don’t pull them down quick enough,” said FarleyCampbell. “And they shouldn’t rely on public employees to run around and pick up their signs.”
While most political advertising in Florence is limited to yard signs, one prominent advertisement on Highway 101 has received attention from protestors and even claims it does not pass legal muster. Located just north of Fred Meyer, the sign promotes the repeal of Oregon Sanctuary Law on one side and advertises Teri Grier for State Representative on the other.
The property owner, Dennis Fleming, rejects claims the sign is in violation and attributes the complaints made on this to opposing political frustrations.
“They had the same freedom to post whatever they wanted to on that sign as well,” he said, referring to those who have issued complaints.
Erected in 1993, the structure was authorized as a “free-standing sign” and has hosted a number of business advertisements over the years. This year marks the first time it has displayed a political advertisement and is also the first time it’s received complaints.
“We live in a free speech society,” said Fleming. “I don’t endorse anybody one way or the other.”
Reports of sign violations can be directed to the Public Works Department at 541-997-4106.