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Free speech or violation of town code?

By Fritz Mayer
March 15, 2011

The red, white and blue sign that says “Let’s get frackin,’ Just pass the GAS!” is an obvious reference to the gas drilling debate that has raged through the region for the past three years. According to comments made at the Tusten Town Board meeting on March 14, the owner of the building, Ned Lang, considers it a matter of free speech.

But the building is in a residential neighborhood, and the town code says signs that are “political posters, banners, promotional devices and similar signs” are permitted but they must not be more than four square feet in size. Lang’s sign appears to be about 10 square feet. The code also says that the sign must be taken down after 45 days.

At the meeting, Igor Smetaniuk, Tusten’s code enforcement officer, said that he had learned about a complaint made about the sign but, because of its sensitive nature, he needed legal advice before pursuing the matter.

He said that it might be seen as a matter of discrimination: the sign on the building next door, indentifying The River Reporter building covers more than four square feet, though Tusten supervisor Peg Harrison said the 10-inch individual letters that are fastened to the building might be grandfathered.

Harrison said another complicating factor was that the Zoning Review Committee has talked about changing the zoning on the street to commercial. But board member Eileen Falk said the zoning had not yet changed and, in any case, the change being considered concerned buildings across the street from Lang’s apartment building.

Harrison said she would get an opinion on the matter from attorney John Kelly.

Tony Ritter, the chairman of the zoning board of appeals, said he would like to see the opinion in writing. He said, “This is not a free speech issue, it’s about size.”

Harrison said that she had talked with Lang and, in a reference to possible legal action, she said, “He is ready to move forward on this, so we have to get our ducks in a row.”

Lang did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

On a related matter, the board passed a 10-month moratorium on seismic testing in the town to allow the board time to come up with a possible ordinance to cover the activity.

Ed Jackson, chairman of the planning board, noted that because of the interest in gas drilling, and because of the presence at recent town meetings of people from Tusten Concerned Citizens, the number of residents at the meetings had risen significantly; there were about 40 in attendance.