BETHLEHEM — Nearly a month of complaints about vulgar signs placed in front of a roadside apartment along Route 302 at Pine Wood Motel compelled selectmen to reach out to town legal counsel to see what can be done.
The opinion from town lawyer Walter Mitchell is not much, unless Bethlehem wants to spend a lot of money fighting a lawsuit it would probably lose on First Amendment grounds.
But a discussion with residents during the Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Monday gave some possible paths forward, and selectmen will now reach out to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) as well as to the office of the New Hampshire Attorney General.
Board chairman Gabe Boisseau said he wanted to bring the issue up during Monday’s public input session because of the large number of people contacting the town to express their concerns.
“We have asked legal counsel about this issue and the recommendation from legal counsel was that we as a board, even though we do have an ordinance in town that says there should be no offensive signs, that ordinance is not enforceable due to the First Amendment laws of the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “As a town, if we try to enforce the ordinance that we have against offensive signs, we could face lawsuits because we could be in violation of First Amendment rights … Government organizations cannot enforce or deal with First Amendment issues such as those.”
The board, he said, should follow counsel’s recommendation to not try to enforce the ordinance because the town would find itself in a legal battle that it probably would not win, said Boisseau.
“The recommendation is that the person who owns the property has the ability to seek legal counsel and potentially enforce it from the landowner side of things, but as a town there’s nothing that we can do,” he said.
The only exception would be if the signs promote violence, which they do not, he said.
The signs and flags, put up by Pine Wood apartment tenant and convicted felon Ryan Collins, say “F*** You,” “F*** Biden,” and refer to the 46th president as a sex offender.
Since they went up about a month ago, Collins has erected a tent that is spray painted with profanity and an inflatable doll.
“People should know that we spent a lot of time on this as soon as the signs went up,” said Selectman Bruce Caplain.” We didn’t sit back and say, ‘Gee, nice sign.’ We didn’t feel it was the way the town should be portrayed, to have signs like that and vulgarity in the town. People are certainly entitled to their opinion, but I think most everyone on the board was very active in looking at every single angle we could possibly explore, for days on end, and unfortunately when we reached out and got an opinion from counsel they essentially told us to stand down. But even then we still tried to push it with the landlord as much as we could. We would like to see that sign down as much as everyone else.”
Article 6 of the town’s zoning ordinance states that “No land or building shall be used for the erection or display of signs, other than for advertising the use and/or sales on the premises and then only in such number, style and design as shall be approved in writing by the Board of Selectmen, nor shall any such signage be used in a manner that is disorderly, unsightly, noxious, offensive, detrimental to the public or to the owners or occupants of adjacent property, or prejudicial to the general welfare of the community.”
Since the town adopted the ordinance on offensive signs, though, a Supreme Court of the United States decision was issued that undermined the local ordinance, said Selectman Chris Jensen.
It would be reckless to try to enforce the ordinance when the town lawyer said that would be a bad plan and the town could end up spending a lot of money in a lawsuit, he said.
“Speaking for myself, I don’t think that’s a good gamble,” said Jensen.
Options Looked At
Selectman April Hibberd said she drove by the signs before Monday’s board meeting and noted that a fence could hide the signs from one direction, from leaving Bethlehem toward Littleton.
“I contacted the neighbor and he would be open to having somebody put a fence up on his property,” she said. “It would at least hide it going one way. It won’t solve it coming into town.”
Resident Margaret Gale said it’s her understanding that Tim Wennrich, owner of Meadowstone Farm, sought to install a “very civil” sign on property that he owns close to the Pine Wood Apartments location and was told that it would not be an appropriate location because it is a scenic road.
“If that is the case, how could it possibly be appropriate for this ‘gentleman’ - uh-hem - to be putting up signs of the nature he has put up?” asked Gale. “What’s the status of Route 302? Is it a scenic road and what governs the signs that go up on it if it is?”
Although Route 302 is a scenic byway, the North Country Scenic Byways Commission has no authority over signs along the road, said Selectman Linda Moore.
Gale said she will conduct some research into the Wennrich sign proposal to determine any sign regulations.
Resident Rita Farrell said the vulgar signs are not acceptable and encourage violence and suggested that DOT be contacted because the signs are close to a state road.
“I would say that the state needs to be involved in this,” she said. “I would say the attorney general of New Hampshire needs to be involved in this.”
Moore agreed contacting DOT is a valid avenue to pursue because the signs are close to the road and said she will call to apprise DOT of the situation.
“I can reach out to the attorney general’s office and see what their stance is on this and what we can do if there’s any avenues through the attorney general,” said Boisseau.
Earlier this month, property owner Randall Nearing told The Caledonian-Record that he tried to remove the sign, but was overruled by Bethlehem police, who said it was protected speech.
Nearing then appealed to selectmen, who referred the matter to town legal counsel.
Nearing said the signs violate the rental agreement he has with Collins, who lives at the apartment with his fiancee, Christa Guyotte.
Face-to-face talks with Collins about removing the signs were unsuccessful and led to Collins becoming confrontational, said Nearing.
In early July, he said he was planning to begin the eviction process based on the violation of the rental agreement, noting, though, that the process will take an upward of two months or longer and cost thousands of dollars.
A Property Owner’s Frustration
On Tuesday, Nearing, who has owned the property for 31 years, said the town ordinance should be jettisoned if selectmen aren’t going to enforce it.
“If you can’t enforce an ordinance, then don’t have it,” he said. “Take it off the books.”
He said Bethlehem police did come down after he called them and after he took signs down himself, only to say that the signs are protected under the First Amendment.
Nearing disagreed and said Collins and Guyotte only rent a room, not the outside of the property.
“I’m not happy about this at all,” said Nearing. “First of all, it’s my property. I should have a policeman come down from the town of Bethlehem, and while I’m there and he’s there, force them to take that down. What the heck is going on? They have all the rights. I’m fuming … Maybe everyone in town ought to go to the police. Take that tent down and get it done and tell them you can’t put stuff on the outside anywhere on the property.”
He said he’s reached out to District One Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, who told Nearing he will be contacting the attorney general’s office this week to see if anything can be done at the state level.
“This thing should have been resolved the day I took that sign down,” he said. “You can’t make any changes to the property, and that’s right in their agreement. That’s talking about renting the room and they don’t even own the outside. A cop came down and he let him put the sign right back up, right in front of me. He forced me to give it back to him.”
Last year, Nearing said squatters took possession of an apartment unit and it took him four months and more than $4,000 to get them out, and they weren’t even renters.
The sign issue adds another level of frustration, he said.
“I can’t do a thing,” said Nearing. “I feel totally helpless … We’re just hanging tight the best we can. It’s not easy.”