Regulatory restraint

Published 9:18 pm Tuesday, October 18, 2011

After months of controversy regarding the acceptable use of signs by Suffolk businesses, City Council has turned the issue over to the Planning Commission for consideration. What’s called for is a complete reassessment of the appropriate level of involvement for city officials and administrators in the decision to advertise one’s business via public signs.

Suffolk currently requires a bevy of permits, approvals and fees for the placards, flags, banners and electronic signs businesses use to let the public know about sales, grand openings and commerce in general.

Want to put up one of those small, sidewalk-sized A-frame signs in front of your business downtown? You’ll have to get a permit and pay $100 to do so. Want to hang a temporary banner in front of your restaurant? That requires a different permit and a different fee. Balloons? Can’t do it. Yard signs anywhere other than private property? Not allowed. Electronic signs? Get ready to be surprised by the limitations.

Email newsletter signup

The idea behind the city’s sign ordinance is that there is a need to protect citizens and the community from the environmental blemish that could result if there were no rules in place to keep things in check. It’s hard to find fault with the logic. Nobody wants to live in a community where his neighbor can erect a monstrosity at the slightest whim. Regulations like the sign ordinance help everyone to know the community’s limits. And setting reasonable limits on public behavior is one of the appropriate activities of government.

Government overreaches, however, when it too easily puts subjective aesthetic considerations ahead of the freedom inherent in the right to own private property and when it charges unrealistic taxes and fees for permission to meet basic needs — as, in this case, advertising a business. Furthermore, government agencies that do not enforce ordinances equally are an abomination to free societies and do not deserve the power that citizens have given them.

As members of the Planning Commission prepare to review the city’s sign ordinance, it might help for them to compare the city’s business sector to a grapevine. Allowing the vines to grow without pruning will result in an unworkable, unproductive, unsightly vineyard. Pruning them too closely, however, will kill the vines entirely, ruining any chance for a harvest.

Suffolk’s businesses can produce a bountiful harvest if city officials will use appropriate restraint in the regulations that hinder them. It’s up to the Planning Commission to set the tone for that process.