High court critical of Milford in protest case
Updated 8:09 pm, Tuesday, November 7, 2017
HARTFORD — A 10-year battle over a Milford homeowner’s right to criticize renovations made to her home culminated Tuesday with a hearing before the Connecticut Supreme Court, where the six-justice panel leveled criticism on city zoning officials for apparently singling out and shutting down the protest.
In a case with First Amendment implications, Scott T. Garosshen, representing the city of Milford, said that it wasn’t the content of Eileen R. Arisian’s three signs on her property at the corner of Bayshore Drive and Orland Street, but their size and number. But Arisian’s lawyer, Eileen Reynold Becker, said that even after her now-76-year-old client decreased the size of the signs to conform with city ordinances, Milford continued to claim she was in violation.
“The city over-stepped its regulatory boundaries,” Becker said. “They overstepped their bounds. She made them smaller and that wasn’t enough. She finally got tired of giving them what they demanded. She finally got so fed up she said let’s take this to trial. She’s a private citizen who wanted to express her opinion on her own home.”
At issue is a 1931 state law that defines advertising signage. Associate Justice Andrew J. McDonald noted that local Milford ordinances indicate there is no requirement for prior approval of temporary signs, including political, commercial and non-commercial messages.
“Are real-estate signs advertising?” McDonald asked Garosshen. “Yes,” the city attorney said. “The city is drawing a distinction based on the content of signs, isn’t it?” McDonald replied, adding that Arisian’s signage did not attempt to sell goods or services, in the manner of traditional advertising.
“These are not advertising signs,” McDonald said. “They’re more akin to political or protest signs.” He asked whether a flag would be considered signage, or whether if he painted his house red, white and blue, would it be declared a sign under the ordinance. “Would you suggest that all protest signs are advertising signs?”
“If they are displayed publicly, yes your honor,” said Garosshen, a lawyer with the private appellate firm of Horton, Dowd, Bartschi and Levesque that was hired by the City.
The case dates back to 2007, when Arisian’s house was elevated and a wraparound porch was completed by a local contractor. In 2010, unhappy with the work and the lack of permits — including building permits and a certificate of occupancy — that the firm promised to obtain, she put one large sign on the Orland Street side of her property and two others on the Bayshore Drive side.
“I do not recommend Baybrook Remodelers,” one of the signs said. Another alleged a number of lawsuits against the firm.
By July, 2011, the city ordered the signs taken down.
Garosshen told the high court that local regulations limit signs to one per street front. He also said that the size of the signs affected property values, traffic and public safety.
“What’s the interest the town had in this particular case if it’s only an issue of size, not content?” asked Justice Maria Araujo Kahn. Garosshen said that the height and number of signs clearly violated the ordinance.
Associate Justice Richard N. Palmer asked whether the case would have been different if Arisian’s messages supported political candidates, to which Garosshen replied that the local regulations would have to be consulted.
“Under the regulations, temporary political or real-estate signs are not subject to regulations,” Justice McDonald noted.
After the hearing, Becker told reporters that it seemed to her that despite what the city claimed in court, Milford is trying to limit her speech.
“People need to know what they are allowed to do with their own properties or not, and how they can express their opinions,” Becker said. “My client feels very strongly about her free speech rights. Most people don’t go to these lengths in pursuing what they want to say, but she’s had to fight all along.”
Garosshen declined comment after the hearing. A ruling from the high court usually takes months.
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