Maine Law: Business Owners Can Do Nothing About Some Political Signs In Front Of Their Businesses
An apple orchard in Manchester is taking heat for some political signs in front of their store that oppose gay marriage.There’s one problem. Neither the store’s owners nor any of their employees had anything to do with putting the signs up and removing them is technically breaking the law.At Lakeside Orchards their business is primarily apples. When it comes to politics the folks here try to stay out of the fray. “We avoid politics,” says store manager Doug Ide. “Everyone is welcome here regardless of their political stripes.”But a few weeks ago, before the annual Manchester Apple Festival, some political campaigns put up signs endorsing candidates and referendum positions right in front of Lakeside Orchards. “There were several,” Ide said. “We have an annual event here which includes a parade. Prior to the parade a whole bunch of signs were put up.”The sign that captured the most attention related to perhaps the most volatile issue on the November ballot: gay marriage. Opponents of same sex marriage put several “No on 1″ signs up right in front of the orchard. Despite the fact the signs weren’t hung or endorsed by Lakeside Orchards owners or staff, it wasn’t long after the calls started coming in. “Because of the perceived position we were taking on the issues that they weren’t going to come to our store anymore. We explained they weren’t our signs. We’re intentionally A-political.”An employee took all the signs down, but may have broken the law by doing so. “It’s public property,” says Bruce Van Note, Deputy Commissioner at the Maine Department of Transportation. Van Note says if the signs are in the state right of way the property is owned by the state. On average the state right of way is 33 feet from a road’s center line. That area is normally used by the DOT but, by law, six weeks before and one week after an election, political signs are allowed to be placed there. That includes spots that happen to be in front of businesses, like Lakeside Orchard, without the business owners’ approval. “It’s kind of a gray area to people, because sometimes they mow it, sometimes they plant flowers, ornamental trees, that’s their front yard and that’s how they feel,” Van Note said. Regardless of whether the business or home owner cares for the property, if it’s part of the state’s right of way, the signs are considered free speech and removing them can bring a fine of up to $250. Van Note tells business owners who run into this problem to call the campaigns directly and ask that the signs be moved. “Even though state law is that it’s allowed within the right of way, the people who run the campaigns usually want to work with abutting property owners.”Or they can wait and in just three weeks all those signs will have to come down.