THE WOODLANDS, Texas –– Michael Tower has been putting signs on the front lawn of his Alden Bridge home for about four years.
Just last fall however, neighborhood residents complained about the sign’s message; it’s an advertisement for a pro-life rally that says, “Pray to End Abortion - 40 Days for Life” that announces a prayer and fasting vigil observed in hundreds of towns and cities nationwide. Tower claims the sign is not political and his ability to have it in his front yard is part of his Constitutional right to freedom of speech.
The township’s Design Review Committee did not agree with him. Tower said he received a letter from the township in the fall, stating that he needed to take the sign down and apply for a code variance. Tower filled out the paperwork and submitted in Jan. 1. The DRC denied his request, so he appealed to the Development Standards Committee.
The DRC met in a special session Feb. 20 and denied his appeal by a vote of 3-1 on the grounds that the sign has an “adverse impact on the neighborhood’s character.”
Mike Bass, who sat on the DRC board and voted against the measure, resigned on the spot when Tower was denied.
“My decision to resign was not an easy one,” said Bass, who was appointed by the township to the board last June. “We have not always agreed but this crossed the line of what was right and fair. This violated his right to free speech...the DSC was wrong.”
Bass and Tower both said that the issue could open the township up to litigation that “it would probably lose.”
“My sign is not a political sign, otherwise it would read ‘Vote to End Abortion,’” Tower said at the regular Township Board of Directors meeting Thursday night. “No, the only way to end abortion is through prayer and now I am being denied my right as an American citizen to make people aware of a prayer and fasting vigil.”
Tower claims the township used a 1993 ordinance to justify its position but that the ordinance does not give them the power to deny signs that are the correct size and properly placed.
Since it was not a regularly-scheduled agenda item on Thursday, board directors were not allowed to speak during the meeting on the subject but plan to include it in a future meeting for discussion. The board also does not have jurisdiction against DSC rulings, according to board member Tom Campbell and chair Bruce Tough.
After being denied, Tower said he drove around The Woodlands and counted about 20 event signs for anything from baby announcements to school and church events, neighborhood meetings and election information.
The DSC claims it did not discriminate against the content of Tower’s sign, said Deborah Sargeant, chair of the committee, and one of the members who voted against Tower’s appeal.
“The DSC denied a variance request after it was disapproved by Alden Bridge...denial of this sign was not based on content but because it was a sign on a residential property,” she said. “We believe there are alternate ways to promote the message, including bumper stickers, window signs and online, rather than yard signs.”
Tower said he didn’t feel the township could even judge the sign on the adverse impact criteria.
“Who's to judge what adverse impact is,” he asked township directors Thursday.
For now the sign is down, but the issue could be addressed at future township board discussions.
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