Cary to appeal ruling on sign ordinance case

Staff writerApril 20, 2011 

— The town of Cary will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that its sign ordinance restricted a resident’s free speech, despite concerns about the case's escalating cost, council members said.

“It’s one of those hold your nose situations,” said council member Don Frantz. “We’ve got to. This has huge implications for the town’s sign ordinance.”

A federal judge ruled in January that the town’s ordinance limiting signs on personal property violated resident David Bowden's First Amendment rights.

The case now moves to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Va., and if it fails again, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Frantz said the town council directed Cary’s attorneys to challenge the decision during the closed-door portion of Thursday’s meeting. Mayor Harold Weinbrecht announced the decision on his blog.

Bowden, who lives on Southwest Maynard Road, sued Cary in 2009 when the town tried to fine him for a neon orange message – “Screwed by the town of Cary” – painted on the front of his house.

Bowden was protesting water runoff from a town road project that he believes damaged his home.

U.S. District Court Judge Louise Flanagan determined that the town’s sign rules for personal property amounted to a “content-based restriction on speech,” meaning Cary’s enforcement was contingent on the sign’s message.

Frantz contends the town did not want to restrict Bowden’s speech but how he displayed it. “We don’t let people in Cary graffiti the side of their house,” he said. “This is a blight on our community.”

The judge’s order did not strike the entire ordinance but instead prohibited the town from fining Bowden. Town officials argue that the decision opened the Cary’s rules to more legal challenges.

After the initial ruling, Cary’s legal bills totaled more than $225,000, including about $46,000 the judge ordered the town pay Bowden for his legal fees.

The price tag is expected to rise with the appeal.

Frantz said cost factored into the council’s decision to appeal but didn’t outweigh the importance of the case.

“We darn sure don’t want to spend much more money on this, but it’s darn bigger than the David Bowden issue,” he said.

He said council members asked staff to spend as little as possible but no cost estimate was provided to council members.

john.frank@newsobserver.com or 919-460-2605

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