Monday, December 3, 2007

Interesting Sign Dispute, With Eminent Domain Twist

From the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch:

Supporters say it's a political statement, maybe even art. The city says it's too big, a nuisance that needs to be removed.

Either way, a two-story mural decrying eminent domain is testing the boundaries of the First Amendment, sparking a federal lawsuit that challenges the city's intricate zoning code.

At issue is a tricky constitutional dilemma — fighting clutter versus protecting free speech — that experts say could force St. Louis to rewrite its laws regarding outdoor signs. . . .

Painted on the side of a brick apartment building near Soulard, the mural faces drivers heading downtown on Gravois Avenue. It advocates an end to "eminent domain abuse," the mantra of veteran activist Jim Roos.

Roos is among the state's leaders in the fight against eminent domain, an issue that has gained visibility since a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that cities can use eminent domain to promote economic development. He has testified in Jefferson City and clashed with city officials who support eminent domain. . . .

In April, the building division cited Roos for having an illegal sign. At about 360 square feet, the eminent domain mural is more than 10 times larger than the size allowed for signs in that section of the city.

Three surrounding neighborhood associations have submitted letters opposing the sign, as did the local alderman, Phyllis Young.

"He should rent a billboard," Young said.

Roos fought the citation, claiming the city was targeting him not because of the size of his sign, but because of its message.

"I think if it said, 'Go Cardinals,' we wouldn't have any problems," Roos said.

The city routinely approves exemptions for large signs. On the same day a city panel rejected Roos' claim, it granted an appeal by Laclede Gas to display a sign of over 1,000 square feet on the utility's downtown headquarters.

Even so, content is not the issue, city officials say — it's keeping the city tidy.

"Can you imagine what our city would look like if everyone were allowed to paint a 363-square-foot, two-story sign on their buildings?" asked City Attorney Patti Hageman.

Roos has taken his case to federal court, where he has drawn the aid of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian advocacy group in Arlington, Va.

Ben Barros

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