Ecotone Farm LLC v. Ward, 2-16 WL 335837 (3rd Cir.) involved a long-running dispute between Plaintiff Ecotone Farm and its principal, Huff, and Harding Township, New Jersey, the Township Engineer, Fox, and Huff’s neighbor, Ward. Huff bought property over which Ward had an ingress-egress easement and there were disputes over the use of that easement. Ward made baseless reports to environmental authorities over the use of Huff’s property and, as a member of the Township Committee, its governing body, Ward instructed Fox to harass Huff, allegedly in consideration for his reappointment as Township Engineer and continuing engineering fees for managing the harassment. Ward is a real estate broker and allegedly steered clients to Fox.
After the U.S. Supreme Court held that the government cannot single out one form of noncommercial speech over another, comes a series of rulings that similarly should have dealt with the questions of content neutrality, a primary tenet of free speech under the Oregon and federal constitutions. Yet, in the Icon Groupe. LLC v. Washington County series of cases, strategic lawyering seems to have put the free speech issues in the back seat.
In 2010, Icon Groupe, LLC filed applications to locate 17 freestanding signs that exceeded the otherwise applicable size and height restrictions, claiming an exemption from these restrictions on the basis that they were “safety signs,” described as:
“[d]anger signs, trespassing signs, warning signs, traffic signs, memorial plaques, signs of historical interest, holiday signs, public and service information signs such as rest rooms, mailbox identification, [and] newspaper container identification”
Some of the signs cautioned drivers on safety matters, while others exhorted them to have a “safe Memorial Day.”
The county did not contest that the signs qualified as “safety signs.” Rather, it denied the applications stating that the exemption was a content-based regulation that violated the Oregon Constitution that must be severed from the remainder of the code, leaving the remaining dimensional requirements, which if found, were violated. Icon appealed the denials but no final action was taken within 120 days, whereupon Icon asked the circuit court to compel the county to approve all the applications under a state statute. The court granted relief and denied a stay pending an appeal, noting that the 120-day statute required it to grant relief unless the permit would violate a substantive provision of the county’s plan or code and holding that statute did not authorize the court to consider constitutional questions. The county appealed that decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals but authorized a number of the requested sign permits.
While the county’s challenge to the mandamus decision was pending, Icon filed a civil rights action in federal district court, claiming that denial of the sign permit applications violated Icon’s constitutional rights to free speech, due process and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.
Although the court agreed that the county did not present evidence that regulating signage advances a government interest, the court also found that Icon did not contest the constitutionality of the safety sign exception, effectively arguing that the exemption was constitutional.
The court then evaluated Defendants’ time, place and manner sign regulations, finding them related to valid public concerns, i.e., traffic safety and aesthetics, the code narrowly tailored in its dimensional requirements and allowing for alternative means of communication. Rather than arguing that the county’s sign regulations, including the exception were unconstitutional, Icon argued that the county’s denial of the applications was (1) premised on an impermissible purpose; (2) lacked consideration of less restrictive alternatives; (3) was arbitrary; and (4) a pretextual regulation of speech.
The impermissible purpose was the use of the asserted unconstitutionality of the exemption. However, the reasons given for the denial were the failure to comply with Code dimensional requirements. The court found that Icon did not have a vested or otherwise unfettered right to approval of its applications and content-neutral time, place and manner restrictions on free speech are constitutionally permitted.
As to a less restrictive alternative of approving the applications and dealing with the constitutionality of the exemption later, the court again noted that the denial was based on failure to comply with the narrowly tailored dimensional requirements of the code and the fact there might be imagined a less intrusive on free speech is not unconstitutional. The court also rejected the failure to act on its local appeal in a timely way as a due process violation, as that failure allowed for its mandamus remedy to be pursued successfully. The dimensional requirements was constitutional.
As to an allegedly unwritten policy allowing the building official to operate without standards in dealing with sign matters, allowing the use of a content-based restriction, it was clear that the official did not exercise arbitrary judgment over application of the dimensional standards, which was the basis for denial.
The final allegation was that the denial was pretextual and was really based on hostility to messages that Icon might communicate in the future. While these considerations were present, the dimensional reasons for the denial were valid time, place and manner restrictions that were narrowly tailored to accommodate valid public interests, toallow for free speech and left open other adequate channels for free speech. The court thus granted summary judgment to the county.
As a postscript, it should be noted that the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the circuit court in ordering mandamus relief, confining itself to the issue of whether a code violation occurred and not considering the constitutionality of the exemption. A Petition for Reconsideration is now pending and a Petition for Review may well be filed in the Oregon Supreme Court.
This is a case that contains many free speech strategic issues under the federal and Oregon constitutions. As a civil rights action, the costs to the county would have been immense had it not prevailed. Perhaps, one can view these cases as an immense chess game in which free speech was an onlooker.
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