Policy vs. ordinance: Keeping campaign signs off county property

Published 7:24 pm Saturday, March 11, 2023

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The Southampton County Board of Supervisors discussed during its Jan. 24 meeting the possibility of making a policy banning campaign signs on county property into an ordinance.

The topic was brought up at the request of Boykins District Supervisor Carl J. Faison.

“I just think that when a person’s campaigning, that any campaign signs should not be on county property,” he said. “And right now we have a policy that that not be, but I think it needs to be stronger than that. I think we need to have an ordinance or something that we have approved to restrict that.”

The policy adopted by the board on May 24, 2022, is as follows: “It shall be the policy of the Board of Supervisors to prohibit the posting of any political campaign sign on or over any county property in the county. This policy shall not apply to the posting of signs at any polling place on the day of a general, special or primary election.”

County Administrator Brain S. Thrower said, “Normally sign regulations are in the sign ordinance in your zoning code, but either way, we can still enforce a policy or an ordinance. Obviously it is stronger and more enforceable in an ordinance format.”

County Attorney Richard Railey shared his insight on the weight and definition of a policy during the board’s May 24 meeting.

“Basically, it’s a statement of the consensus of the majority,” he said, adding that a policy is what a majority of the board thinks at the time that the policy was adopted. “Obviously a policy has more force after it’s been effective for 50 years or 25 years, but it’s not a violation of the criminal law to violate a policy. If somebody violates a policy, you can’t get an injunction. It’s truly, in my mind, a statement of opinion.”

At the board’s Jan. 24 meeting, Community Development Director Beth Lewis said, “The county’s adopted sign ordinance specifically prohibits political campaign signs from being regulated at all. Temporary political campaign signs are exempt from the zoning ordinance. So they don’t have to follow anything.”

However, she noted that property owners can certainly say they do not want political campaign signs on their property, and Jerusalem District Supervisor and Board Chair Dr. Alan W. Edwards emphasized that the board has said exactly that with regard to county property.

“The board said that, but you can’t use the sign ordinance as the tool to do that,” Lewis said.

Thrower said, “You can amend the sign ordinance and the sign regulations to state specifically you don’t want political signs or any signs on county property, and that’s where it usually is stuck if you have prohibitions for that type of thing.”

“I think everybody is generally correct in this — ordinances are more enforceable, for all the reasons outlined,” he said. “But you do have a policy that you’ve adopted saying, ‘No signs on county property,’ which we can enforce regardless.”

The enforcers of the policy are county staff — Thrower, Lewis or others from the community development department.

“To change an ordinance, doesn’t it have to go to the Planning Commission?” Edwards asked.

“If it’s through the zoning code, it’s got to go back through the Planning Commission for a public hearing and back through you, so you would have two public hearings, like you would have (with) any other zoning ordinance amendment,” Thrower said.

Franklin District Supervisor Robert T. White said, “You’d have to advertise twice.”

Lewis estimated the cost of each ad as being $600 to $700.

“I think we can stick with the policy and just see; Brian says he’s going to enforce it,” White said, noting that former County Administrator Michael W. Johnson enforced it previously. “So why spend $1,600 on advertising public hearings and all that? I think we’ve got something in place that’ll work. That’s my opinion.”

Faison said, “Well, if this works, then I certainly don’t want to spend unnecessary money.” 

Thrower advocated for proceeding with the sign policy and its enforcement and then bundling zoning code updates in the future to save money on advertising — with one of those updates making the sign policy a part of the sign ordinance.

“Because I do think, at the end of the day, it is better if you have this in the sign ordinance,” he said.

Edwards said, “I think with the budget coming up, if we have it covered with the policy, fine. I can’t see spending $1,600 of taxpayers’ money when you already had it covered. … Certainly if there turned out to be problems, we can bring this back. I’m sure (Southampton County Director of Elections Lynn) Burgess will keep us informed if there are.”