Sign Wars: There is Hope
Updated: May 7, 2022
Some of our county chairs have reached out seeking help in dealing with the flurry of offensive Republican signs that appear on our highways and byways. From "Let's Go Brandon" to "F*** Biden!" to "Trump Won" to handmade signs, and campaign signs, they seem to proliferate like rabbits in our reddest counties. Is there anything you can do?
The answer is "yes" something can be done. But it requires constant diligence and an asserted, organized and sustained effort.
In this post we will discuss the basic rules related to signs on Texas U.S. and State Highways, and what steps can be taken to deal with them.
The basis rules are simple:
It is illegal to place any signs on or within a public right of way. (highways, farm to market roads, county roads or other public roads) This includes posting signs on trees, telephone poles, traffic signs and other objects on the right of way.
Campaign or other signs along Texas Highways can be placed on private property with the owner's permission.
If the state highway is within the city limits, additional rules and restrictions, including limitations on size and when signs can be placed, may apply. (We will discuss city ordinances and regulations in our next post.)
This of course begs the question, what is the "right of way"? Very simply the "right of way" is the right of the public to pass over the roadway. It is that part of land on which a highway or road is situated and has been dedicated to use as public road or highway. This is typically done in the public real property records of a county by a grant of deed or easement over the land. It typically includes both the roadway itself, the shoulder and some additional land on both sides of the road that extend up to private land. Private land is most often delineated by a fence or some other indication of private ownership. The right of way does not include the private land on either side of the road. The right of way width will vary depending upon the size and use of the road. The right of way is usually measured from the center line of the road.
For example, a 33 foot right of would extend 16.5 feet from the centerline of the road in each direction. What is and is not in the right of way is important in determining where a sign can be placed. It can be placed on private property on either side of the road, but not within the 33 foot right of way
Who can remove signs?
Do not take it upon yourself to remove the sign. In Texas a sheriff, constable or other trained volunteer authorized by the Commissioners Court may confiscate a sign that is placed in the right of way. There are certain notice procedures that go along with confiscating a sign and these are the responsibility of local law enforcement. If the sign is along a state highway or farm to market road, the sign can also be removed by the local Texas Department of Transportation office. (TXDOT)
The easiest way to have a sign removed is if it poses a safety hazard. It is hard for the sign owner to argue that their First Amendment right to free speech trumps public safety. Safety hazards can be things like: if it blocks vision of a driver at an intersection or turn, or is an obstruction to traffic or pedestrians. This can apply regardless of whether it is on private property or not. If a sign presents a safety hazard it should be reported to local law enforcement and/or TXDOT. But don't leave it there. You will want to follow up frequently on your complaint until the sign has either been moved, removed or until you are told by the authorities that they have determined the sign placement does not violate state law. There are often steps where you can appeal an adverse decision that the you disagree with as well so don't forget to ask about those if your complaint is denied.
If you really want to be diligent in your county, request a copy of the right of way maps from the Texas Department of Transportation District in which you live. That way you can review whether the placement of a sign is in the right of way or not before making a complaint. These can be quite voluminous for the whole county, so you may only want to request one for the specific location where there is a suspected violation. You can also check on county or other public road dedications on plats and surveys in the County Clerk's office to determine whether a sign is in fact placed in the right of way or on private property. Just because a sign is posted on a fence along the road does not necessarily mean that it is on private property. Conversely, just because a sign is sitting in what appears to be the public right of way, that does not mean it is not on private property.
Vacant property, or property where the owner does not live locally can sometimes present a problem. It is perfectly okay to investigate and ask the owner of a property if the sign owner has permission to place an offending sign on their property. The worst that will happen is they tell you "yes". Sometimes, signs just get placed where signs have always been placed and the owner has not in fact given permission.
There is an online complaint form on TXDOT's website. But the most effective way to deal with sign issues on the highways is to build a relationship with the folks at your local TXDOT District Office. A complaint made directly to your local office will get a much quicker response than simply posting an online complaint. Also, making friends with the Sheriff's office or constable can be very beneficial. Personal relationships will get your farther than just about any other approach. You can also file a complaint that can be filed with the Texas Ethics Commission if the sign does not comply with Texas Election law.
If you need help dealing with a particular difficult sign issue, please reach out to us and let us know how we can help.
The real teeth on what can be done though comes with signs placed within an incorporated city limits. We will discuss that in detail next time
The information presented in this post is not legal advice and is presented for general educational and informational purposes only. If you have a specific legal problem you should consult with a licensed attorney to determine how the law applies to your particular situation.