In the latest effort to control clutter on city streets, the Wichita City Council has approved an ordinance that beefs up the city’s ban on signs, including political signs, on the public right-of-way.
The new ordinance conflicts with a state law passed last year that sought to protect residents’ rights to place political signs on their property in the lead-up to an election.
“I am so happy we finally have this,” council member Janet Miller said on Tuesday. “While we’ve been in sort of a ‘hold’ mode (on sign enforcement), the proliferation of these signs in the right-of-way has just gone nuts. It just makes the city look so trashy.”
Political signs were common in the right-of-way during the just-completed special election for Congress, and some are now along the sides of streets in west Wichita for next Tuesday’s Goddard school district bond election.
“I am looking forward to us going back to being able to enforce a sign code again now that we have a legal code that’s been updated,” Miller said. “Fortunately, thankfully, we got it done in time for our next (city) election cycle.”
Council and school board elections are scheduled for an Aug. 1 primary and a Nov. 7 general election.
The usual place where sign conflict occurs is on the grassy strip between a sidewalk and the edge of the street.
The property owner owns the land and is responsible for maintaining and mowing it, but the city holds an easement for street use.
Under the new ordinance, no temporary signs will be allowed in the easement area.
The state law, which passed as House Bill 2183, sought to strip cities and counties of the authority to pass blanket bans on political signs in landscaped, privately owned rights-of-way.
Under that law, a local government would have to allow small campaign signs in the 45 days leading up to an election.
City officials say the state law is invalid because it sets political signs apart as a protected type. The right-of-way is also often used for real estate, fundraising and yard-sale signs, which the state law does not address.
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while state and local governments can regulate the placement of signs, regulations have to reasonable and they can’t discriminate based on the content of the message.
“I think it’s more important to have the court ruling on our side” than to adhere to the state law, Mayor Jeff Longwell said.
Scott Knebel, city planning manager, said that conflict may soon end anyway.
“As I understand it, the state is rethinking their statute as it relates to placing political signs in the right-of-way,” Knebel said.
The new ordinance won’t apply to signs in the public right-of-way that are physically being held by individuals.
Handheld signs are often used by panhandlers asking passing motorists for money, tax services trying to attract customers, stores having sales and protesters.