Bid to Secure a Political Truce for Signs in Old Lyme’s Historic District Makes Little Headway

Old Lyme Historic District co-Chair John Noyes addresses DTC Chair Mary Jo Nosal (CT Examiner)


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OLD LYME – In a tense meeting on Monday morning in Town Hall, Democratic Town Committee Chair Mary Jo Nosal expressed skepticism, if not opposition, to an effort by members of the Historic District Commission to broker an informal deal between local Democrats and Republicans to refrain from, or at least discourage, the posting of political signs along Lyme Street.

HDC co-Chair John Noyes described the proposed deal as an attempt to restore a status quo ante once favorably described two decades ago in the New York Times. Noyes, who is unaffiliated with either party, leads the bipartisan eight-member commission with co-Chair Diane Mallory, a registered Republican. Three Democrats, three Republicans and two unaffiliated members, all appointed by the Board of Selectmen, currently sit on the commission.

After Republican Town Committee Chair Randy Nixon, who called in to the meeting by phone, summarily offered his support for the idea, Nosal followed him by emphasizing that she could not speak for the local Democratic party as a whole but was attending rather to ask questions and learn more about the proposal before discussing it with members of the DTC.

“I would like to know more about this. I’d like to know more about why we’re here, why we’re singling out the two political parties and I have a lot of questions on this. I’m not here to represent the DTC today until I have more of a discussion,” Nosal told members of the Historic District Commission.

But distancing herself from the decades-old “gentlepersons’ agreement,” Nosal pointed out that political signs had been appearing in the historic district for some time, and she questioned the role and motivation for the Historic District Commission to intervene in a partisan political matter.

“Again, this is a really tricky situation. I would like to say that there’s been political signage in the district for some time. It didn’t just pop up with this last election. I was not involved with the gentlepersons’ agreement, so I can’t really speak to that time and place and to what commitments were made by the party so long ago, but I will say, at that particular time, from what I’ve been told, the Democratic Party in town anyway didn’t have any money to buy signage. So, it really wasn’t an issue for the party from what I’ve been told at that time,” Nosal told the commission.

“It seems to me that this issue of political signage is being raised for political purposes, and I’m trying to wrap my head around why that Historic District would want to go there,” Nosal challenged commission members. “Are you trying to regulate just political signs? Are you trying to regulate all signage in the district?”

Noyes, who largely led the discussion, agreed that the previous election was not the first to feature political signs in the historic district, but was indicative of the fact that “things clearly were not trending back towards the direction of no signs.”

That, Noyes explained, put the Historic District Commission in the uncomfortable position of regulating political speech – not the content, which is protected under the First Amendment, but the form, as with all signage in the district.

“Why are we involved?” said Noyes, “Because we are mandated to deal with all signs. A little over a year ago, we received an opinion by counsel of several issues related to signs … and one of the clarifications was that based on our mandate, state statute, there is no exemption for temporary signs.”

With the advice of the town’s zoning enforcement officer, Eric Knapp, the commission has been clarifying the rules and enforcement of rules governing a variety of signs along Lyme Street, including commercial signage, recurring event signage, banners, posters, temporary and permanent signs.

“It would be great if we didn’t have to try to step in and complain to people about the signs, and the thought was that the RTC and the DTC have lots of properties outside the district, and if we could resurrect this tradition, it would potentially make things in the district a lot easier to deal with,” said Noyes. “I can assure you, the Historic District Commission is not singling out any particular party.”

Nosal asked Noyes whether the intent was to curtail political signs.

“I do think based on the letter we received — the RTC and DTC chairs received — and the agenda today, you singling out political parties,” said Nosal, “and we are not necessarily the only people that put up political signs in the district. So, it’s your objective to enforce against your neighbor on Lyme Street for political signage?”

Carolyn Wakeman, a Democrat on the commission, stepped in to answer.

“I’ll take a stab at that. I think our purpose is to… I know our purpose is to request the cooperation from the RTC and DTC together and equally so that they could request of their participants, of their party’s members, to display signs outside of the historic district and not display political signs in the Historic District. That’s the only request. If we can all agree, and it would come from you and Randy as chairs, then that would help to resolve the issue. Could there be a rogue Republican who puts up signs anyway?… Yes, I suppose it could happen, but it would be less likely. So, it seems to us a step forward, and an effort to create the kind of comity that we have been talking about today, to avoid the conflict that did arise last year,” said Wakeman.

In reply, Nosal questioned whether the commission was motivated only by Democratic signs appearing at One Lyme Street, given a number of signage issues, she said, the commission had not responded to.

Nosal said the homeowner “felt politically threatened,” by a few members on the commission.

Nosal mentioned widespread vandalism targeting Democratic and Republican signs across town, and an incident involving an alternate on the commission who later resigned her seat after removing political signs from the One Lyme Street property.

Noyes explained that the commission routinely oversees temporary signage on Lyme Street, but the removal of the signs on One Lyme Street last fall was the action of an individual rather than an enforcement action of the committee.

“As we move toward revising the handbooks with regard to all signs,” Wakeman interjected, “with political signs being just a very small subset, a very small entry in a long list of signage, regulations, and recommendations. We’re trying to move toward that today. That’s what we are doing. So, we’re looking forward, we’re also recognizing that there was a problem in the fall that we hope that problem will not occur. And we’re looking at exploring ways perhaps through your participation and Randy’s, to just take one more step avoid the kind of conflict and confrontation and tension and lack of comity that we discussed this morning.”

Russ Todd, an unaffiliated member on the commission who was calling in to the meeting, reached for common ground.

“From my perspective,” said Todd, “I feel like this is an opportunity for leaders in the town, being the RTC and the DTC, to show support for the historic character of the Old Lyme Historic District and the historic traditions of Old Lyme. And that by coming together on an issue — and we know there are many, many other issues that that divide us — we see this as a great opportunity to speak to some of the higher values of Old Lyme… which is the historic traditions and the historic district here. So, I come in that spirit and ask you to come in the spirit of trying to work together to support the historic district and something that I think everyone in town values and loves and is recognized not only by folks in Old Lyme, but as John mentioned, has been identified by the New York Times several years ago. So, I think it’s unique and special.”  

Reiterating that she could not speak for the DTC as a whole, Nosal underscored her belief in unfettered free speech.

“Nobody loves Old Lyme probably more than I do,” said Nosal. “I have given a lot of time to this town. And I certainly respect the historical district. But I respect the Constitution even more. And I’m very careful about First Amendment rights.”

In ten minutes of further discussion, Nosal questioned the jurisdiction to the commission, the legal force of guidelines in the revised handbook, and suggested the need for the Board of Selectmen to oversee the process.

Nosal and commission members raised thorny issues of timing and approvals if political signs continued to be posted on Lyme Street and, like other signs, required approval and an application fee.

Left unresolved, the commission turned a variety of routine approvals, including signage at Homeward Collective at 24 Lyme Street.