WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court said a Georgia company cannot sue Rockville over the city’s refusal to let it put up seven billboards throughout the commercial district.
Trinity Outdoor Corp. claimed the city’s laws regulating the size, location and content of billboards was an unconstitutional infringement of its First Amendment right of free speech.
But a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not even get to Trinity’s constitutional claim, dismissing the suit on the grounds that the Atlanta-based company had never registered to do business in Maryland and did not have standing to sue.
The court’s Thursday ruling affirmed a 2004 district court ruling dismissing the case on the same grounds. Trinity’s attorney could not be reached Friday to comment on the latest ruling.
But an attorney for the city welcomed the ruling against a company that she said tried to “force us to permit something that we do have the right to regulate.”
Samantha Williams, the city’s attorney, said Trinity was proposing signs as large as 1,400 square feet in the city, where billboards are limited to 100 square feet. The signs were proposed for routes 355 and 28, among other roads.
City officials immediately rejected the applications because they so obviously violated the city’s ordinances.
“We were trying to save them from having to pay an application fee,” Williams said of the July 2003 rejections.
Rockville law prohibits any sign over 100 square feet and it bans all offsite commercial signs — billboards that are not on the property of the business they advertise. The law allows noncommercial signs, such as those with a political message, on or offsite, as long as they meet the size requirement.
“The big issue is the visual blight that is created by unregulated signs. It really does become a clutter issue,” said Dirk Geratz, president of the Maryland chapter of the American Planning Association, which supported Rockville in this case.
Trinity sued in October 2003, claiming the law was so specific on what was allowed that it amounted to a restriction of free speech.
The Dallas Business Journal reported last week that Trinity’s attorney, Edward Adam Web, has been involved in at least 97 suits in other states to get billboards erected in areas where local government has regulated against them.
But the district court dismissed the suit in January 2004 for Trinity’s failure to register as an out-of state company seeking to do business in Maryland, and its failure to obtain a state highway department license to engage in outdoor advertising. That ruling was affirmed Thursday.
While the case has worked its way through the courts, the city has tweaked its sign ordinance to prevent future challenges, Williams said. In October 2003, Rockville officially prohibited any sign larger than 100 square feet in the entire city, and in July 2004 it made clarified restrictions on noncommercial signs, to make it clear that they are allow throughout the city.
“This city has no intention of doing anything improper, of doing anything unconstitutional,” Williams said of Trinity’s challenge.
Geratz said the APA never thought Trinity’s suit was valid.
“It’s not that they can’t advertise, they just can’t advertise based on the limits in Rockville,” he said.
William Brinton, who filed a brief supporting the city on behalf of the APA and Scenic America Inc., said the court ruled “in favor of local government against these schemes to strike down entire sign ordinances to put up billboards where they were otherwise not allowed.”
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