LEE — Town officials have apologized for causing “anger” and “harm” in recently removing lawn signs, and those who were upset by their removal can retrieve them at no cost.
That’s the gist of the remorseful letter being given to the property owners, one day after the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union gave the town until Thursday to return the dozens of signs recently seized by municipal building officials — and apologize for doing so.
Those residents and organizations wanting their signs back, sans a fine, penalty or other cost, can call the Lee Building Safety Department at 413-243-5518, according to Lee/Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen.
“The town wishes to apologize for the anger, confusion and/or mistrusts in government that the taking of the signs may have caused,” Ketchen wrote in the letter. “It is obvious that the town of Lee has endured a sustained period of difficulty over the last year and this recent event has served to further exacerbate that difficulty.”
In a letter dated Tuesday, the ACLU wrote that the town showed an “abuse of power” in seizing “No PCB Dump” signs and yard postings from several other organizations.
Lee/Lenox Building Commissioner BJ Church, in an email to landfill opponent Anne Langlais, stated last week that the signs were removed for violating Lee zoning bylaws, allegedly for being in the town rights of way.
While the building officials were following current zoning, Ketchen said in the letter that the town will work to revise those sign bylaws that he states are “confusing and incongruent with the type of community we strive to be.” He noted that a full review and revision of the bylaws will begin with possible amendments for the annual town meeting to vote on in May. Approval requires a two-thirds majority.
The ACLU has joined those upset by the removal who, before the Select Board at its bimonthly meeting Tuesday, also demanded immediate return of the signs.
“Failure to do so could expose the town and individual town employees to liability under state and federal civil rights laws, particularly given that ‘loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury, (Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 374 (1976)’” the ACLU stated.
Ketchen indicated that the town would meet the demands of the ACLU and residents, but the remedy would not meet the ACLU’s request in its letter that the town’s sign bylaws come into “constitutional compliance” by Thursday. He noted that proposed zoning bylaw changes require a public hearing and a town meeting vote.
The sign seizure stems from a complaint by former Lee Selectman Thomas Wickham, who informed the Lee Planning Board that many of the anti-PCB dump signs might be illegal. Town planners referred the matter to Church and the town’s Building Safety Department, which is in charge of zoning enforcement.
Langlais had told The Eagle that most of the 400 lawn signs distributed were up weeks after the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced in February 2020 its Rest of River agreement with General Electric, the Lee Select Board and other parties. That deal included the landfill, and Wickham was a selectman at the time.
Church and her staff removed 81 signs, which also included other signs and ones advertising the ongoing Lee Historical Society exhibit at the Lee Library.
Society President William Mathews said about 30 to 40 percent of his organization’s signs were taken down at a crucial time as the exhibit ends July 31. Mathews said that, in his reading of the bylaws, he found that they don’t address lawn signs, but they do require zoning enforcement officers to give a 20-day notice for people to remove or properly place their sign so as not to violate zoning.
He called on the Select Board to immediately rule that the town overstepped its authority in removing the signs.
“Simply pass a vote finding that there have been misinterpretations of the bylaw that have led to overly zealous enforcement,” he said.
Select Board Chairwoman Patricia Carlino said those with issues over the sign removal should go before the Planning Board, which is scheduled to meet Monday night.
“We cannot rule or give your relief,” she said.
Resident and town meeting representative Josh Bloom felt that the person hired — Ketchen — should have intervened in the matter.
“Chris, you should be called to task, you’re [Church’s] supervisor,” he said
Bloom added that the town was selective in removing lawn signs and not addressing the ones congratulating high school and college graduates and those in support of police.