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Judge to rule in Central Radio sign case

Updated: February 13, 2013 - 9:09 pm

Posted: February 8, 2013

By Lydia Wheeler

lydia.wheeler@insidebiz.com

Last Tuesday, attorneys for both Central Radio and the city of Norfolk had filed motions in U.S. District Court asking for a summary judgment in place of a trial in the civil action lawsuit over freedom of speech.

The legal action stems from a city citation Central Radio owners Robert Wilson and Kelly Dickinson received while protesting the condemnation of their property under eminent domain by the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The authority wants the property, located 1083 W. 39th St. near Old Dominion University, to be transferred to the ODU Real Estate Foundation to be redeveloped as part of ODU's University Village, a mix of restaurants, shops, offices and student housing.

On March 23, Wilson hung a 375-square-foot banner on the side of his building facing Hampton Boulevard, that read, "50 years on this street," "78 years in Norfolk," "100 workers," and "threatened by eminent domain!" It was accompanied by a graphic showing a red circle with a line through it around the words "Eminent Domain Abuse."

Wilson wanted his message, according to court records, "to be a shout, not a whisper."

On April 5, city zoning inspectors issued Central Radio two citations - one for lack of a sign certificate and another stating the sign had to be reduced to 60 square feet.

On May 5, city zoning inspectors returned and asked Wilson to take the sign down or face penalties of $1,000 a day.

The Institute for Justice requested a temporary restraining order to allow the sign to stay. Judge Arenda Wright Allen denied the request.

According to court documents, the city claims the Central Radio sign violated Norfolk's sign code.

"Given the dimensions of the Central Radio building, the maximum amount of wall signage allowed would be around 90 square feet," according to court documents.

The Institute for Justice, the attorneys representing Central Radio, claim the city rarely enforces its sign code and their clients' citation was "content-based."

According to court documents, the city issued only one citation for violating a size restriction in the five years before Central Radio displayed its banner.

After the city issued Central Radio a citation, however, it issued 14 citations for various sign code violations, including three to DePaul and Sentara hospitals.

Because of limited resources, the city said it has adopted a complaint-driven approach to enforcement of the sign ordinance and only investigates after a complaint is received.

The complaint about Central Radio's banner came from a member of the ODU Real Estate Foundation, but the identity of the complainant was not disclosed.

Though Central Radio claims the city of Norfolk violated its First Amendment right to free speech, the city of Norfolk disagrees.

"The restrictions that the sign code places on wall signs in industrial districts is not a regulation of speech, but rather a regulation of the places where some speech may occur,"stated the brief, supporting a motion for summary judgment for the city.

In addition to the 90-square-foot sign, the sign code allows Central Radio to erect a 64-square-foot freestanding sign on the property, giving them "ample channels of alternative communication," city court records said.

It is unknown how much time Wright Allen will take deciding whether to issue a summary judgment or go to trial.