Camas may ban election, other temporary signs at roundabouts

Citizens, police have said signs are safety issue; some councilors worry proposal limits ‘freedom of speech’

Anyone who drives through Camas regularly knows it’s tough to overlook an upcoming election. The city’s busiest roadways and intersections are hot real estate for political signs, but a new proposal being considered by the Camas City Council could limit those signs to areas outside Camas’ traffic circles.

The proposal, which made its way from the Camas Planning Commission to the Council earlier this month, would prohibit temporary signs like those that pop up every election season from being sited in a traffic roundabout or within 150 feet of the roundabout.

Robert Maul, the city’s planning director, has said the proposal to ban temporary signs in and near the city’s two roundabouts — on Sixth Avenue off Highway 14 and at the Lake Road-Everett Street intersection — stemmed from citizens concerned about safety issues.

“During this election season, both roundabouts had a siz=able collection of signs,” Maul told members of the city’s planning commission in November 2021. “We received complaints … that the signs created quite a distraction.”

The proposal came to the planning commissioners in late 2021, as part of the city’s annual process for amending Camas’ municipal code.

“As part of the city’s annual code improvement project, the staff amendments include corrections to typos, citations or punctuation, and to clarify sections of the (city code) that were challenging to administer over the past review cycle,” Camas planner Madeline Sutherland told the planning commission in November 2021.

The proposal was lumped in with other code amendment recommendations, including a proposal that prompted a lengthy discussion at the planning commission level about altering the city’s zoning codes to prevent drug and alcohol treatment centers from operating in residential zones or within 1,000 of parks, schools and libraries.

The Camas City Council considered the code amendments during its April 4 workshop and regular meeting. Though the Council ultimately decided to send the list of code amendments back to the planning commission due to concerns that the amendment related to substance abuse facilities could violate state and federal laws, some city councilors also took note of the temporary sign proposal.

Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen questioned if the proposal was actually a safety issue.

“Do you have statistics or evidence to back up the fact that it is a safety consideration?” Lewallen asked Sutherland and Maul during the Council’s April 4 workshop.

Sutherland replied that city staff had no specific statistics, but that citizens had brought safety concerns regarding “an accumulation of signs near the roundabouts.”

Lewallen said she was trying to figure out if it was a safety concern or an aesthetic issue and worried the city might be violating people’s “freedom of speech” by banning signs in city roundabouts.

“I would err on the side of letting people fully speak their mind,” Lewallen said. “Unless there are legitimate safety concerns that can be backed up, I wonder if it’s a legitimate concern at this time.”

City Councilwoman Shannon Roberts, who acted as the city council’s liaison during the planning commission’s months-long consideration of the temporary sign proposal, said during the April 4 city council workshop that she agreed with Lewallen.

“If you start at one place not allowing signs … you’re only going 5 or 10 miles per hour in a roundabout (and) if you limit signs in one place will (we) gradually prohibit throughout the city?” Roberts said. “I’m really hesitant in limiting freedom of speech.”

Though political signs are protected under free speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution, local government bodies such as city councils, can regulate where signs can be placed on public property. Other cities and states have prohibited campaign signs and other “temporary signs” within traffic roundabouts due to public safety concerns.

Police chief says signs inside roundabouts ‘pose safety issue’

Earlier this month, Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey told the city council members his department believed placing temporary signs inside traffic roundabouts did pose safety issues.

“It’s not safe to have people going out on the roundabout islands with no sidewalks to get in there,” Lackey said during the Council’s April 4 workshop. “They were not built for pedestrian access (inside the roundabout).”

Lackey added that he had no opinion about the safety of placing the signs within 150 feet of the roundabouts.

Maul told the city councilors the city had received several complaints about signs placed in Camas’ most recent traffic roundabout at Lake Road and Everett Street during the most recent election season.

“This last political season was the first time using the new roundabout in that fashion,” Maul said. “We had a considerable amount of complaints (from drivers who said the signs distracted them). We’re not prohibiting them citywide, only in the roundabouts and inside this (150-foot) circumference.”

Maul told the planning commissioners the same thing during the commission’s December 2021 meeting.

“We’re not the only city that looks at these signage issues,” Maul said in December, adding that most of the sign-related complaints city staff received during the 2020 election season centered on those in and near the roundabouts.

“The roundabouts are a unique situation,” Maul said. “(People said) it was awfully distracting, trying to figure out which offramp to take (when) there are all of the signs there.”

Councilwoman Roberts questioned how distracting the signs might be.

“If you don’t want to look at them, then don’t look at them,” Roberts said.

Asked by planning commissioners how people might find out about the city’s prohibition of temporary signs inside and near roundabouts if the city council approved the proposal, Maul said the county lets political candidates know exactly where they can and cannot place election signs and that other temporary signs require a permit from the city, so residents would find out during this permitting process that they could not place temporary signs inside the roundabouts.

“On the code enforcement side … they just remove them,” Maul said when asked what might happen if people violated the city’s code. “There are no fines or penalties.”

The Camas City Council will consider the proposal to ban temporary signs inside and within 150 feet of traffic roundabouts later this spring, after the planning commission has had a chance to revisit the code amendment related to drug and alcohol treatment centers and sends the complete package of code amendment proposals back to the city council.