City again says banner violates code
By Jeff Simms
For the second time in less than a year, a Beacon business owner has been summoned to court after clashing with the city over signs that it says require permits but that he calls protected political speech.
Last month, Jason Hughes hung an 8-by-34-foot vinyl banner that reads “Resist White Supremacy; Vote on November 6, 2018” on the Route 52 side of the warehouse at 4 Hanna Lane, where he runs LNJ Tech Services. He also co-owns Ella’s Bellas at 418 Main St. with his wife, Carley.
In January city building officials ordered him to remove a banner that read “No Hate! No Fear! Everyone is welcome here,” from the same spot on the warehouse, where it had been on display intermittently for nearly a year. It was designed as a commentary on a resolution being considered by the City Council to declare Beacon a “sanctuary city” that would not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
The “White Supremacy” banner, which went up about four weeks after “No Hate! No Fear!” came down, borrows language from the owners of Cox Farm in Northern Virginia, who earlier this year posted a “Resist White Supremacy” sign on their property that drew heated responses from local residents and on social media.
Last summer, Hughes and the city also butted heads over whether several paintings by Beacon artist Rick Rogers installed on the side of the Ella’s Bellas building were artwork or signage. One reads “Imagine all the people,” a reference to the John Lennon song. Hughes paid a $500 fine, but the paintings are still up.
The city on March 16 issued an order assessing a fine of $1,000 per day until the new warehouse banner is removed. On April 11, Hughes received a summons to be arraigned in criminal court on April 26.
Like many municipal regulations, Beacon’s zoning code is subject to interpretation. It allows a “temporary sign” to be erected without a permit if it is used “in connection with a circumstance, situation or event” that takes place “within a reasonably short or definite period.” Hughes said that if the November election were ruled to be too distant to meet that criteria, he would rehang the sign closer to the vote.
Permanent signs whose messages periodically change are not considered temporary, nor are signs “effectively displayed on an ongoing basis,” according to the code. But it also says “political banners” are permitted temporarily.
Hughes argues that prosecuting him as if the dated banner were meant to be permanent — the court summons charges that it was erected without a permit and exceeds size limits (an argument also made by the city against the earlier “No Hate” banner) — “prejudicially removes” his right to rehang the sign closer to the election.
He also said a building official told him “that this wasn’t his department leading the charge,” but rather “a couple of people in City Hall.”
Mayor Randy Casale says that’s not the case, that the city can’t issue a violation based on the sign’s content.
“When I get an email about something that people think is illegal, I forward it to the proper department” to check out, Casale said. “I don’t tell them what to do.”
Some residents have taken Hughes to task recently.
“I had family in this weekend and they were wondering what’s going on with Beacon? Is it filled with white supremacists?” Steve Zias said during the April 2 City Council meeting. He noted the sign was visible to children at Memorial Park and asked: “What does that say for the Beacon residents who are welcoming everyone coming into the city? It’s a shame.”
Hughes disagrees, calling the banner “an attempt to start a conversation” and a “general political statement” that doesn’t refer to Beacon or any individual. “What I’m saying is we need real progressives running for office. People need to educate themselves and learn who stands for what.”
Hughes says the feedback he’s received has been more positive than negative. As for children and visitors seeing the sign, he says, “naming a problem is never sufficient to solve it, but no problem has ever been solved without first being named.”