Supreme Court ruling prompts city of Aspen to alter sign code |

Supreme Court ruling prompts city of Aspen to alter sign code

Temporary construction signs cover a build site fence on Hyman Avenue on Tuesday. The city of Aspen is looking at altering its sign code to comply with a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

The effect of a U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning a small church in Arizona will play a part in Aspen City Council’s revision of the land-use code.

Like other municipal and town governments, Aspen has a set of rules governing sign usage within city limits. In 2010, the Aspen government updated its sign regulations, which are part of the land-use code, with Ordinance 19, a 36-page document.

Speaking at a Monday work session with Aspen City Council, the city’s long-range planner, Jessica Garrow, said elements of the sign code need to be addressed because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

Garrow’s memo to the City Council, which concerned sweeping changes to the land-use code so that it better reflects the community’s ideals in Aspen Area Community Plan, noted that the high court’s order “will require the city to examine the sign code this year.”

When Reed v. Town of Gilbert went to the Supreme Court, it was the final stop for a case that began when the Arizona town cited Good News Community Church and its pastor, Clyde Reed, because its temporary directional signs announcing times and locations for his makeshift church’s services exceeded the town’s 13-hour limit. Reed sued the city on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment’s free-speech clause as well as the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause because the town allowed political signs to be posted for up to five months.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the town of Gilbert’s sign code was unconstitutional because it applied different rules to different types of signs, instead of being content-neutral.

“The court’s ruling means that whenever the government attempts to regulate speech — whether that speech is on roadside signs, in rooms rented out in schools and libraries or at rallies in a public park — it must do so in an even-handed, neutral way,” wrote David A. Cortman, who represented the church, in an Aug. 4-dated piece on “So whether your speech is religious like the church’s or is just discussing a particular topic that is important to you, it must be given the same access as all other speech.”

Aspen City Attorney Jim True said Tuesday the city isn’t taking any chances with its sign code given the Supreme Court’s ruling, but “we’re trying not to make a big deal out of it.”

As an example of what the city of Aspen faces, True noted it has different rules concerning the size of temporary construction signs and real estate signs on private property. The city could, in theory, ban all signs on private property and be in compliance with the Supreme Court’s ruling, True said.

“But I don’t think anybody is interested in doing that,” he said. “That would be an emergency-type move.”

True said “there’s a lot we need to do, but we need to decide where we want to go.”

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