GILFORD — When Building Inspector David Andrade removed a sign advertising upcoming civic projects by the Laconia Lodge of Elks, Laconia Veterans of Foreign Wars, Laconia American Legion, and Laconia Rod & Gun Club, he was enforcing local regulations, but the move did not sit well with Elks member and Gilford resident Mark Roy.
In a letter to the editor of The Laconia Daily Sun, Roy labeled the action a “lack of common sense, abuse of power, and plain lack of courtesy.”
He explained, “We recently agreed to be one of the four local clubs who stepped up with the help of many people locally and statewide to run the all-day fundraiser for the Fallen 7 on Saturday, Oct. 5.”
The Fallen 7 refers to the seven motorcyclists killed when a truck driver crossed into their lane on Route 2 in Randolph last June.
“We had a local supporter donate some signage to advertise the event being held at each club,” Roy continued. “On the preceding Sunday, some club members and I placed our sign at the end of Maple St. along Rt. 11A, opposite to the OPA Hillside Medical sign and along the overgrown stream that runs parallel to the roadway. This sign was no higher than 3 ft. off the ground and formed in a Y formation back to back as one side read, ‘4 Clubs Come Together For The Fallen 7’ and the other read ‘Corn Hole Tournament Oct. 5th.’”
When a club member noticed that the sign was missing, he went to the Gilford Police Department which offered to help track down the sign, according to Roy. They learned that Andrade had removed it.
“Apparently Mr. Andrade felt this sign was in some type of violation and thought it wise to take it down, place it in his vehicle, and make no attempt to contact the owners, or simply drive down the road and explain what the ‘issues’ with this sign were, allowing for a remedy and still being an effective tool to raise awareness for the upcoming event,” Roy wrote. “It took us two days to obtain our sign back, to which Mr. Andrade stated ‘you’re lucky I didn’t just throw it out!’”
Gilford Town Administrator Scott Dunn said in an email response to a question from The Sun, “I completely empathize with Mr. Roy, but I believe his anger at Mr. Andrade is misdirected, much like someone who blames a police officer for enforcing a law that makes no sense.”
Dunn pointed out that Gilford’s zoning ordinance prohibits all forms of off-site advertising, the result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited regulating signs by content.
“If the Elks club had put up the sign on their own property, there would have been no issues,” Dunn wrote. “Also, if Mr. Roy had contacted the Building Inspector before he put up a sign on someone else’s property, we would have been able to explain the rules to him.”
Change to sign ordinance
Gilford previously had been more forgiving about signs, but selectmen in July 2017 established a sign ordinance review committee in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, that found content-based regulation of speech violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The case was filed by Rev. Clyde Reed against the town of Gilbert, Arizona, which treated signs giving directions to his itinerant church differently from other short-term signs. Gilbert’s sign code put limits on the size and length of time the church’s signs could be displayed, but allowed other types of temporary signs to be larger and stay up longer.
As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, Dunn told the selectmen that Gilford must treat all signs the same way, which could mean allowing no signs or all signs.
“Prior to this decision,” Dunn said on Tuesday, “the Town allowed signs in public rights-of-way for non-profits, agriculture and real estate. Once the law changed, the Planning Board was faced with a difficult decision — should the Town allow all signs without regards to content or should all off-site signs be prohibited. After a lot of public debate and several public hearings, the decision was made to recommend a Zoning Ordinance amendment that would prohibit all off-site signs. Had the Planning Board not chosen this route, there was a very legitimate fear that the streets of Gilford would suffer from a proliferation of signs, with the end result being a cluttered, commercial appearance throughout Town that would ultimately have a negative effect on property values. And so the question of prohibiting all off-premise signs was put to the voters in 2018 where it was ultimately approved and became the law.
“Mr. Andrade has been tasked with enforcing this law that was adopted by the voters. Ever since this law went into effect, it has not been uncommon for the Town to remove these signs without tracking down the owner and some are thrown away,” Dunn said.
Roy also complained about the town’s stance on alcohol, saying the Elks Lodge had been trying to get approval to have alcohol outside “during pre approved and State Liquor Enforcement licensed fundraising events like our classic car show or corn hole tournaments, and I stress ‘have,’ not sell, pour, or openly serve outside.
“We received verbal approval from the NH Liquor Enforcement Department and Gilford Fire Department, based on obtaining Gilford Town approval. After going through a ‘meeting’ with Gilford Land Use and having our attorney try to work with them, we were informed we would need another land survey of our property, which mind you has not changed since we built the building more than thirteen years ago,” Roy continued.
“The survey would cost thousands of dollars. As you can imagine it is not financially prudent to spend an exorbitant amount of money to raise a few thousand dollars for 6-8 one day events a year, especially for a non-profit organization.
“The Elks have received nothing but roadblocks and simply unprovoked mistreatment since we chose to join this Gilford community,” he said.
Dunn responded by noting that the Elks’ site plan approval by the Gilford Planning Board had stipulated “there shall be no outside serving of alcoholic beverages.”
“In order to amend this situation, the Elks needed to submit an application to amend their site plan and provide some documentation regarding the filling of wetlands on the property where the outdoor activity would take place,” Dunn said. “These same standards would have applied to any and all commercial properties in the Town of Gilford.”
Dunn added that the town has an appeal process in place for any decision by the building inspector, planning director, or Planning Board.
“This is a simple process of going before the Zoning Board of Adjustment and letting them decide if the Town Officials made some type of mistake in the enforcement of the rules,” Dunn said.
Dunn added, “it is my fervent hope that the Elks will continue in their role as samaritans for the community because their good deeds are much too important to be sidetracked by perceived hostility from the Town.”
The Elks Lodge supports veterans at the local and national level, spearheading youth programs such as drug awareness, along with a hoop shoot program, soccer shoot program, sponsorships of many local teams in all sports, and an annual Christmas food basket program for those in need, as well as providing Elks scholarships.
“In my role as Town Administrator, I would be happy to assist anyone that feels persecuted or victimized by their local government,” Dunn concluded.