Revised sign ordinance passes Neenah Plan Commission; heads to the Common Council

In Neenah, the plan commission proposed changes to the city's sign ordinance.
Published: Sep. 26, 2023 at 11:36 PM CDT
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NEENAH, Wis. (WBAY) - In a unanimous vote Tuesday evening the Neenah Plan Commission passed a motion to change the city’s sign code ordinance.

The City’s current sign code has existed since 1977, and “since that time, a few minor amendments have been approved, none more recently than in 2010.”

The memorandum addressed to the mayor and the plan commission says the current sign code conflicts with the U.S. Supreme Court case Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, Arizona. The decision prohibits regulations of signs based on their content. It also mentions that “the City’s sign code, as it’s existed since 1977, includes several sections clearly violating the principles of the Reed Case.”

Deputy Director of Community Development Brad Schmidt says the changes would only allow regulations on “size (height and area), location (location within a district and location on a property), or sign construction (material).”

Other regulations risk infringing on a person’s First Amendment rights of free speech.

“A yard sign as an example is regulated differently than a real estate sign which is regulated differently than a campaign sign because you have to read the content of those signs that really is against that Supreme Court decision,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt says while this change was planned for a long time, Plan Commission member Betsy Ellenberger says she’s concerned the sudden change is in response to the sign issues the city had over zoning at Shattuck Middle School.

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty sued the city of Neenah and city code enforcement officer Michaela Bedora of the Neenah Police Department, on behalf of two homeowners, Timothy and Megan Florek.

The City demanded families take down yard signs by February 8, telling the Common Council not to rezone the Shattuck Middle School property. The Floreks were sent letters to remove the yard signs--saying it violated their right to free speech.

The school district closed Shattuck, and a developer submitted a bid to build houses and apartments on the property. The building was sold in August to Umer Sheikh, of Neenah-based Investment Creations LLC, who bought the property for $500,001.

Schmidt says the lawsuit against the City wasn’t the only factor, but it did push the changes further along.

The rewrite of this code needs to go before the entire council and it will include definition changes that provide clarity including the definition of a sign.

On August 31, the City of Neenah filed a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit against the city saying that they have revised the sign ordinance and it’s expected to pass the Plan Commission and the full Common Council in the future. It had not however been motioned to be revised until Tuesday’s Plan Commission meeting.

The Plaintiffs in the case filed a response to the Defenses’ motion to dismiss on September 14, saying they oppose the dismissal of the federal lawsuit.