As cars zoomed by Key Center one day in September, a passenger exited a vehicle stopped at the intersection. He was intent on removing a yard sale sign that had blocked his driver’s vision. He cleared the view for the next driver, but left the sign on the ground to blow away with the next gust of wind from oncoming traffic.
The proliferation of various signs has turned the drive along the Key Peninsula into an eyesore. Signs ranging from garage sales to day care openings, foreclosure help and tree cutting abound on trees, light poles and road markers. Most of those signs are illegally placed, as defined by laws at both county and state levels.
Key Pen resident Tim Kezele said, “The Key Peninsula Highway used to be designated as a scenic right-of-way,” where signs are allowed by paid permit. That designation seems to have been disregarded, considering the number of signs placed recently, as a drive in either direction on the KP Highway will show. Kezele said he has a stack of 50 to 60 signs in his garage that he removed from the roads.
A 1971 Washington state law, the Scenic Vistas Act (RCW 47.42), provides for the sign removal by the Department of Transportation. “The Department will only enforce commercial signage if someone complains,” Kezele said.
“I haven’t been on a campaign in a while,” pulling down what he calls “litter on a stick,” he said. “There are garage sale signs that have been up for over a year. Everything from tires to cheap health insurance to pizzas are advertised on sign posts and telephone poles. There is even a sign in the middle of the oyster beds on the Purdy Spit, the gateway to the Peninsula…It is eye litter.”
“We view them as litter, too,” said Steve Bennett, traffic operations engineer with the Washington State Department of Transportation. “Any sign that obstructs sight distance at a corner, our crews will remove it. Part of the difficulty in enforcement is that any sign removed will reappear the next day. It’s a tough issue to keep up.”
Not the county auditor, but the Office of the Attorney General enforces the state laws (RCW 42.18.020) for election signage and political advertising, which includes any displays, newspaper ads, billboards, signs, brochures, articles, tabloids, flyers, letters, radio or television presentations, or other means of mass communication, used for the purpose of appealing for votes or financial or other support in an election campaign.
Campaign signs are less a concern to Kezele, “because the candidates remove them right after the election—usually.” That may be to his credit. Signs promoting political candidates and ballot issues are under constitutional protection by the United States and Washington state. RCW 29A.84.040 protects political advertising. The defacement or removal of each sign constitutes a separate misdemeanor violation.
The King County Bar Association (KCBA) states on its Website, “Courts have consistently acknowledged that “the First Amendment has its fullest and most urgent application to speech uttered during a campaign for political office.”
Under state statute and county code, signs may not be placed in a road right-of-way. This invisible boundary includes the paved road surface and a strip of land on either side of the road reserved for shoulders, drainage ditches, sidewalks, traffic signs, electrical traffic signal control boxes, utility lines and future road expansion. The width of the right-of-way varies, sometimes extending only a short distance beyond the paved roadway — past the shoulder. Or the right-of-way may extend well into what appears to be someone’s front yard. It may be impossible to identify the right-of-way without detailed legal maps or a formal survey. Property owners, not knowing exact right-of-way boundary, may have maintained, landscaped or fenced this area.
Signs placed on private property are treated differently than those located on public land. Public property is placed into various categories under the law. The most important category covers “places which by long tradition or government fiat have been devoted to assembly and debate”— traditional gathering places as streets, sidewalks and parks, “held in trust for the use of the public and . . . for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions,” according to the KCBA.
Signs posted on private property are covered under the Fifth Amendment. Courts recognize political signage displayed at one’s home carries special importance with ensured constitutional protection. Political campaigners depend on signs to demonstrate a resident’s support for a particular candidate, party or cause—often an advertising impact that money couldn’t buy. Governments regulate the size, location and duration of such signs. Well-known restrictions forbid vehicular or pedestrian traffic blockage, limit square footage for each sign face, and prohibit the display of campaign signs on public property beyond a specified post-election period.
While some signs are subject to constitutional protection, others are subject to local and county regulation and fines up to $475. Department of Planning and Land Services (PALS) supervisor Diane Ranes said in an email to KP News, “We do receive numerous calls about illegally placed signs. PALS Code Enforcement Section enforces illegally placed signs on private properties only. We conduct investigations on a reactive, not proactive, basis… Most of the complaints we receive, however, concern signs illegally placed along or within state or county road rights-of-way and we direct complainants to file those with the appropriate agencies.”
Ranes added, “Any signs placed along or within a state right-of-way are the responsibility of DOT. Signs placed along or within county right-of-way are enforceable under PCC Title 12.28 which falls under authority of the county engineer in Pierce County’s Public Works & Utilities Department. We do not patrol for signs violations.”
The Department of Ecology posts anti-litter messages using roadway and retail signage. Its Website states, “These are critical communications elements because they provide vehicles for reaching people at the scene of the crime: either when they’re littering, about to litter, or when someone has a chance to report the act of littering. WSDOT has partnered with Department of Ecology to put up 138 new highway road signs featuring the campaign slogan, ‘Litter and it will hurt,’ and the toll-free number to report littering, 866-LITTER-1.”
“People need to advertise, but they need to do it tastefully,” Kezele said.