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Signs of the times

Those harbingers of spring are here, colorful displays popping up in front yards across the city. No, not crocuses, but campaign signs hyping the May election -- among the very few signs allowed on residential property under Denver's zoning code. A Hickenlooperhere, a Mares there, a Zavaras everywhere.

Although no signs are permitted -- not officially, at least -- on public right-of-ways, medians or the strips between the street and a homeowner's sidewalk, a homeowner has plenty of room for self-expression in the space between the sidewalk and his castle. That is, if all he wants to express is the idea that his home is for sale or rent, or that he's having a yard sale that same day. Those notices advertising roofers, painters, contractors -- even free kitties -- all violate city code.

In fact, just about the only area where zoning loopholes stretch to accommodate creative signage is political campaigning -- but free speech has its limits, too. Both pro- and anti-war displays are technically in violation of Denver regulations, for example. "We do regulate what goes on private property, and we try to regulate in a reasonable way," explains Julius Zsako, head of neighborhood inspection services for the city, who suggests that any war-related messages be placed "in a window protected from vandalism and the elements" -- and code-enforcing vigilantes.

Only political candidates are guaranteed safe passage outside. "You can have one sign per candidate per street frontage for each office," Zsako explains. "Campaign signs can only go up ninety days prior to the election for which the sign was designed, and they must come down fifteen days after the election." They also can be no more than eight square feet and cannot blink or flash. The rules are less stringent on commercial property, where campaigns can post multiple signs and hang banners -- as long as they're moved every thirty days.

Still, the city respects the rights of homeowners to have their say, limited though it may be. Condo-association rules or homeowner-association covenants that prohibit political campaign signs technically violate the city's rules, Zasko says. (Summerfield at Indian Creek, a seven-year-old subdivision in southeast Denver, just rewrote its bylaws to ensure that homeowners understand they can post political signs, says Rob Merritt, a member of Summerfield's homeowners' association who also works in the city auditor's office.)

And Denver officials recognize that free-speech fights can crop up on even smaller properties. So if husband-and-wife homeowners disagree on their favorite candidate, each is allowed to post a campaign sign. "You could be wondering what kind of marriages we have out there," Zsako observes. Otherwise, he says, this campaign season has been pretty clean. "In my twelve years with the city, this is the most orderly campaign I've ever seen."

With seven increasingly messy weeks to go.

 
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