D.C. Tries to Fence In Homeowners' Free Expression

In American University Park, signs like this one have been declared illegal by the District.
In American University Park, signs like this one have been declared illegal by the District. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Ann Todd, like a dozen other homeowners within a few blocks of her house in American University Park, has a sign on her lawn supporting Adrian Fenty's campaign for mayor. The District government has not threatened to fine her $2,000, and it won't.

But five of Todd's neighbors on Ellicott Street NW face exactly that sanction because their lawn signs protest a plan by a newcomer to their block to split a lot and build a big house.

To the D.C. government, it's not how you say it, but what you're trying to say.

"Keep the Park in A.U. Park," reads one sign. Another: "Save A.U. Park. No McMansions."

Every resident who put up a sign to protest Chevy Chase real estate agent David Cai's subdivision of the lot he bought a few months ago has received a gift from the District: A violation notice and an order to remove the sign or pay a $2,000 penalty. The city says its building code allows campaign signs but not lawn signs expressing personal opinions.

The protest began after Cai bought a house in the 4700 block of Ellicott and quickly moved to sell it and, separately, a chunk of its yard. Total asking price: 50 percent more than the $900,000 he'd just paid.

Neighbors checked around and determined that Cai had persuaded the city to let him subdivide his new property so he could build a house next to the existing one.

Cai wouldn't talk to neighbors about his plans. So they decided to make their displeasure known.

The signs went up. Along came a D.C. inspector, saying that a neighbor had complained. Homeowners with the hand-lettered plywood protest signs got cited; those with mayoral campaign signs did not. "I've had a Fenty sign on the lawn for months, so why didn't I receive a citation?" asks Todd, who supports her neighbors' cause but doesn't have one of their signs.

But the good people of Ellicott Street are nothing if not law-abiding. They consulted lawyers and reminded the District that, as resident Andrew McBride wrote in a letter of appeal, "signs on residential property enjoy a special level of First Amendment protection."

From the start, the District seemed to offer an out. Residents should get permits for the signs, the inspector told the neighbors. So they trooped down to the bureaucratic labyrinth known as the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to seek permits.

Lynne Parenti spent 2 1/2 hours at DCRA. At first, bureaucrats tried to tell her she didn't need a permit to post a lawn sign. Then they said she did. When she tried to apply for a permit, she was told she needed a copy of her house's plat, a surveyor's map showing how the land is divided. The city was happy to provide the plat, for $30.

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