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Medford loosens reins on campaign signs

An unlimited number of campaign signs could pop up on front lawns and vacant lots in Medford thanks to a new ordinance that now limits the amount of time they can be displayed.

The city previously allowed only two campaign signs, but it has decided to remove any limits on the number of signs.

"It is my idea, and I'm not backing down from it," said Bill Mansfield, a Medford Planning Commission member and local lawyer.

The ordinance, which took effect May 15, also no longer requires permits for campaign signs placed in commercial or industrial zones.

There previously was no time limit for campaign signs. Now, signs can be placed eight weeks prior to an election and must be taken down within seven days after the election.

Mansfield said he told the Planning Commission it was wrong to limit the number of political signs on a property, because it is an infringement on free speech.

"There's no question political lawn signs are not in particularly good taste," he said. "But they do advance the right of free speech."

Mansfield said he warned the Planning Commission not to limit the number of signs or he might head to court to protect his rights.

"I was going to put up five or six and dare the city to come down on me," he said.

Mansfield said he also wonders whether limiting the size of political signs and limiting the duration of time they can be installed might also infringe on free speech rights.

In homeowner associations, an individual property owner agrees to a covenant to limit political lawn signs or other behavior, but Mansfield objects to a government telling people what they can say on their own properties.

"I'm not expecting everybody to agree with me," Mansfield said. "I'm not talking about people limiting themselves. I'm talking about limiting government."

The changes to the ordinance were based on decisions made by both the City Council and Planning Commission.

The ordinance came about when questions were raised about the necessity of obtaining a permit to install a political sign on commercial or residential property.

"We used to get hundreds of permits," said Praline McCormack, a planner with the Medford Planning Department. "It was quite a process."

Now permits will not be required, though candidates need to get permission from individual property owners. Signs cannot be erected in a public right of way.

A fine of $250 could be invoked if someone failed to follow the time restrictions specified in the ordinance.

Signs in residential zones are limited to six square feet in area and a maximum height of six feet per sign. In commercial and industrial zones, signs are limited to 32 square feet in size per sign.

Generic residential signs that don't have a political content still will be limited to two signs. Generic commercial signs also will be limited to four signs. An example of a generic sign might be something that stated, "Go Ducks."

In Medford, it wasn't uncommon to see many lawns filled with more than two signs in past election years. McCormack said the city takes action only when a complaint is lodged.

Chuck Heauser, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Central Committee, said the new ordinance will probably not mean more lawn signs in Medford.

"We have a sort of rule about being courteous about our signs anyway," he said.

Experienced candidates are well aware of lawn-sign rules, which vary from community to community, he said.

Heauser said his office in Medford will provide candidates with information about the new ordinance.

"It'll make it a little easier for the newer candidates that haven't run," he said. "As close as we can tell, it won't have a major impact."

Lynn Howe, chair of the Jackson County Democratic Central Committee, said the current sign ordinance does not appear to be strenuously enforced — or is enforced selectively.

However, getting rid of the permits will help candidates, she said.

She doesn't think there will be a significant increase in signs throughout Medford beyond the numbers seen in previous elections.

"Campaigns are trying to spread the signs to the areas where they make sense," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.