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Small town caught in wind farm vortex pays $50,000 to settle suit over sign ordinance

Windmills generate a lot more than electricity around Morrison, a small town in Brown County.

Plans for more of the giant turbines have spun up a deep philosophical split  between neighbors who favor or oppose wind farms. As more towers arose, so did big yard signs opposing wind energy over fears that it presents a threat to public health and safety, and decrease property values.

But Morrison town officials – some of whom had signed contracts to allow turbines on their property, or had relatives who planned to profit from the turbine sites – didn’t like the anti-wind campaign, and strictly enforced an ordinance that severely limits signs in Morrison, even while exhibiting much greater tolerance for pro-wind signs. The crack down persisted despite numerous explanations and legal opinions that the ordinance, and its enforcement, was unlawfully impinging on free speech.

Finally,  two couples who had been subject to numerous take down orders for their signs, sued in federal court last year, claiming the law unconstitutionally prevented residents from posting signs with religious, personal or political statements on their own property.

On Tuesday, their attorneys, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, announced that town and its insurers agreed to pay the couples $30,000, plus $20,000 in attorney fees.

“I think our clients are satisfied. They feel vindicated. They don’t feel the money is enough to compensate them for the grief they’ve gone through,” but they weren’t in it for the money, said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel for WILL, a not-for-profit public interest law firm.

He noted that the ordinance was changed soon after the suit was filed last year, and now allows any non-commercial sign on private property without a permit.

“Sometimes,” Esenberg said,  “it takes a federal lawsuit to concentrate the mind.”  He said WILL has no position on wind power, but took the case because of the First Amendment rights at stake.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, illustrated the communicative power of such an old fashioned medium even in today’s digital world. The plaintiffs said  yard signs were particularly effective, and economical ways for wind energy opponents to target their views to residents and officials.

“You  want a more or less constant expression of your opposition,” Esenberg said, noting that opponents knew that neighbors were probably under steady pressure or temptation to sign leases with energy firms looking to site wind mills.

You can see some of the anti-wind turbine signs at the WILL website.

Town politicians instead chose to pay the Town attorney many more thousands of taxpayer dollars to continue with litigation, rather than admit that they violated the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions. These additional and unnecessary legal costs have been used to vilify the plaintiffs, shifting the blame from those responsible to the victims of their actions.