A resident of Bayview in Milford, CT was ordered to remove signs. Within days of receiving a demand letter from the city she said she would work with the city and try to adhere to its sign ordinance, but wondered about the motivation of city employees. City officials stonewalled every time she sought clarification regarding what was necessary to resolve the issue. On at least 6 separate occasions, she or others reached out to the city in hopes of resolution, but the city, as of April, 2013, will not accept anything short of completely removing the signs. The city is now in the process of suing her to try to force her to remove the signs.
What signs are these, you ask? Do they say FIRE! and did she hang them in a crowded theater? Are they obscene? Fighting words? Bright, huge, loud, jarring signs?
Is it this sign?
No. That sign is good.
The signs are on her house and state that she doesn’t recommend a remodeling company. They show how many lawsuits that company is involved in compared to other local builders. On the left, you can see one sign facing east and on the right you see one sign facing south and one facing west.
The city attorney is using Milford’s sign ordinance to try to force her to remove them. You see, according to the zoning officer’s purported understanding of the sign ordinance, she can’t post the signs on her house, because, among other things, her signs have to be set back at least 10 feet from her property line. The setbacks for her house are less than 10 feet from her property line. It would seem that the regulations about where she can put a sign are stricter than the regulations about where she can put a house.
And it doesn’t end there
A threat of litigation will usually get a person to obey. But Eileen was already being sued by the remodeling company over the signs and perhaps was seen as annoyingly dedicated to her right to free speech. The city needed a bigger hammer. A bigger tool. Lucky for them, there are some pretty big tools working for the City of Milford.
And so, in 2011, the zoning officer claimed to have looked in her building department file and discovered that no Certificates of Zoning Compliance were issued on permits pulled in 2004 and 2003. Renovations were inspected and approved by the Building Department–they’re the ones who check if it’s safe and built to code–but not Zoning. What does this mean? Well…it means nothing. Let’s look at the CT General Statutes (29-265):
(a) Except as provided in subsection (h) of section 29-252a, no building or structure erected or altered in any municipality after October 1, 1970, shall be occupied or used, in whole or in part, until a certificate of occupancy, as defined in the regulations adopted under section 29-252, has been issued by the building official, certifying that such building, structure or work performed pursuant to the building permit substantially conforms to the provisions of the State Building Code and the regulations lawfully adopted under said code. Nothing in the code or in this part shall require the removal, alteration or abandonment of, or prevent the continuance of the use and occupancy of, any single-family dwelling but within six years of the date of occupancy of such dwelling after substantial completion of construction of, alteration to or addition to such dwelling, or of a building lawfully existing on October 1, 1945, except as may be necessary for the safety of life or property. The use of a building or premises shall not be deemed to have changed because of a temporary vacancy or change of ownership or tenancy.
By law, Milford can’t do anything about a Certificate of Occupancy after 6 years. And the law only ties occupancy to the State Building Code–to ensuring that the construction itself is safe for the purpose, we might assume, of keeping people physically safe from harm arising from shoddy work. It doesn’t seem like the State of Connecticut wanted to give cities the power to throw people out of houses known to be safe as a tactic to try to shut them up.
But Milford is not going to let the law, common sense or decency interfere with its strategy. Those signs will come down and the city will drag her through court until she does what she’s told, empties her retirement savings, or dies. And so the Zoning Enforcement Officer and City Attorney are acting based on a city ordinance, and are completely disregarding both state law and the 5th amendment.
Based on this portion of Milford’s Zoning Ordinances, the City of Milford ordered Eileen to vacate her house.
Since October, 2011, Eileen has not lived in her house.
The city’s plan seems to have been to refuse to give the house a Certificate of Zoning Compliance, and therefore a CO, unless the signs came down. The argument would be that the signs, being less than 10 feet from a boundary, are in violation of the sign ordinance, and so the house is not compliant with zoning regulations and can’t get a Certificate of Occupancy, which means the City of Milford will continue to forbid her to live in her house. It is a wicked strategy. If you want to fight for your right to speak, fine. We’re going to deprive you of your home, keep you from your family and subject you to the expense and stress of litigation for as long as you want to fight that battle.
Zoning Officer Stephen Harris wants more than just the signs down, though–he wants in. He wants to inspect her house, inside and out. Not only that, but according to the lawsuit against Eileen, he also wants a judge to give him the right to access and inspect her property at will, forever.
So by law the city has no right to demand this inspection. The statute of limitations is up. Why would the City of Milford fight state law? Will the mayor try to get the CT legislature to change state law and extend the statute of limitations, so his appointees can “inspect” Eileen’s home? Why is the city pushing so hard to access her property? Why has the city gone so far as to deprive her of use? What legitimate city interest might be served by illegal inspections and drawn-out litigation?
Still, is it worth the fight in court? Why not just let them inspect?
Is it reasonable to demand to search (and sue for a right to search forever) a private home after the statute of limitations has expired? Hmm?
Here’s another question: Did you know that the City Attorney and the acting head of Land Use think it’s legal and appropriate for the Milford Zoning Officer to declare your home and property of 41 years “farmland” and forbid you to occupy it? I bet you didn’t know that because who would? Who would even guess that local government thought it had the power to take away property without due process of law?
What other ordinances open to misapplication and abuse lurk in the zoning regulations? You can find the city’s zoning rules here. There are a lot of them. Can you say with certainty that you’re not in violation of any of them? Of course not. Nobody can.
Now step into Eileen’s shoes.
- There are signs all over town
- The signs all over town are commercial and have less protection than your speech
- Under state law, the city has no legal right to regulate your speech at all
- You made several attempts to resolve this matter, yet city officials refused to accept anything short of you submitting to an illegal search and removing all signs
- The city went into your building file and purportedly discovered that your builder failed to get a Certificate of Zoning Compliance on permits pulled 7 and 8 years before–and the city is coming after you for that, too.
- There’s a 6-year statute of limitations for cities to go after people about COs, and 7 and 8 years are more than 6 years
- Numerous properties lack Certificates of Zoning Compliance, yet the city has not ordered others out of their homes
- A major storm (Irene) had just hit the shore when your persecution began. The Land Use Department was inundated–you wonder why they made getting your signs down such a priority, and why it remains so important now. You wonder what their motivation is
- The Mayor was seeking to waive all zoning regulations for people making repairs at the shore–people living literally across the street from you–all while his administration was acting decisively and viciously to deprive you of property and drag you through a long and costly legal process if you didn’t remove signs and submit to an illegal search.
Might you suspect that you’re being targeted for your speech? Might you question the impartiality of the people at Land Use, at the City Attorney’s office and in the Mayor’s office? Might you further suspect that the Zoning Enforcement Officer who is so hell bent on getting into your house and onto your property will be looking hard for any additional reasons–legitimate or not–to punish, harass, intimidate, sue and abuse you, if given the chance? Might you suspect that the city attorney’s office will drag you through court and further persecute you for any infraction the Zoning Enforcement Officer alleges?