City Sign Ordinance Unenforceable

An Eagle River inn proprietor and one the neighboring businesses were having a dispute over parking issues. The inn proprietor put up a sign prohibiting his neighboring businesses’ customers from parking on the Inn parking lot, specifically stating the neighbor’s business name and indicating their customers were “rude.”

Somehow the City of Eagle River got involved, because this business sign, according to the City’s interpretation, was prohibited by the City’s sign ordinance. There is also a state statute that expressly permits a private party to erect no parking signs much like the one in question.

Thus we have a preemption issue, and the Court of Appeals made short work of the case, stating that the state statute preempted the city ordinance and the sign was permitted under state law. Thus the city ordinance could not be enforced against this sign, under these circumstances.  (It’s a bit complicated, but the City ordinance did not restrict no parking signs on private property, instead it prohibited certain kinds of off premises signs, and the argument was that since the sign was on the inn’s property, but was directed at the off premises neighboring business, it was in violation of the City’s sign ordinance).

I see two lessons here – the City’s ordinance may well be valid as written, but was invalid as applied in this case. So even though the language of the city ordinance didn’t exactly prohibit no parking signs, in this case it prohibited this no parking sign.  Thus state law preempted this specific application and enforcement of the ordinance, but didn’t invalidate the ordinance itself.

The other lesson that appears is that neighbors in disputes often want to drag local municipalities into what is, at its core a private dispute. Municipalities should be wary of intervening in private disputes, and make sure any intervention is an appropriate use of local government authority.