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Morrison residents sue over sign rules; Complainants say their campaign against turbines is free speech

MORRISON – Two couples have filed a federal lawsuit against the town for its efforts to prevent them from waging a sign campaign against wind energy.

James and Barbara Vanden Boogart and Jon and Lori Morehouse filed the suit in the Eastern District of U.S. Court against Morrison, town Chairman Todd Christensen and town code enforcer Mark Roberts.

Christensen and Roberts couldn’t be reached for comment. Steve Gillis, the town lawyer, said he was vacationing and had not seen the suit, so he declined comment.

The families allege that town officials are violating their constitutional rights of free speech and equal protection.

The couples have been posting signs opposing wind turbines over the past several years to encourage town officials to oppose turbine development, encourage neighbors not to sign contracts with developers and to direct people to websites with information about turbines, according to the complaint.

The town in recent years has been invoking a 1980s-era ordinance that prohibits signs in residential and agricultural areas except generally real estate, nameplate and agricultural-related signs. It also allows political campaign signs 30 days before a primary election and 15 days following a general election.

The ordinance provides for a $15 permit, but one resident who applied for one for an anti-wind sign was denied and told any such sign would be permitted only with a variance at a cost of $150, the complaint says.

The ordinance sets a penalty of $10 to $200 a day for each day a violation continues, according to the complaint.

The Vanden Boogarts and Morehouses launched a campaign to protest enforcement of the ordinance by continuing to post signs – sometimes with anti-turbine messages and sometimes decrying the sign ordinance – and removed them upon receiving takedown notices from the town, the complaint says.

In one instance, the town issued fines against both couples, but in March, Municipal Judge Cletus Hubers dismissed the citations because prosecutors failed to match signs with the proper takedown notices and citations, the complaint says.

The complaint also accused the town of selectively enforcing its ordinance by allowing pro-wind energy signs to remain up on other people’s property.

The suit is being handled for the couples by the Wisconsin Institute for Law 7 Liberty, a public interest law firm focusing on individual liberty and related issues.

“We have no position on wind power,” lawyer Rick Esenberg said. “The larger issue is, you simply can’t prohibit people from putting signs in their yards. You can’t have this kind of blanket prohibition against signs containing prohibited messages.”

The two couples and other town residents have been battling to get the town to change its ordinance, but Christensen essentially told them they’d have to sue to resolve the issue, Esenberg said.