Zoning dilemmas: regulation of political signs

Source: philstar.com
The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) National Office, recently, clashed with the Archdiocese of Bacolod when its Bishop permitted, or was it instigated?, tarpaulin posters to be hung on the Cathedral wall. The posters listed the names of those running for Senators either under Team Buhay (i.e. Senators running for reelection who voted against the RH Bill) or Team Patay (i.e. those who voted against the RH Bill), labels coined by the Archdiocese as part of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ (CBCP) campaign against national public officials known to have supported the Bill.

COMELEC said the posters did not conform with its regulation concerning size of campaign posters. The case reached the Supreme Court where the Bishop from Bacolod angled on the freedom of speech and that the posters were on private property. The Court issued a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on the COMELEC’s move to bring down the posters. Court hearing will resume late this month.

My reading of this case is that (a) COMELEC did not accuse the Archdiocese on the content of its posters or the place in which its posters were put up but rather and very precisely the size of its posters yet (b) the Archdiocese argued for some other things (i.e. freedom of speech and private property) and then for some reasons (c) the Court did not persist on the Archdiocese to ‘please answer the question’ but rather (d) it appeared to have turned a deaf ear to COMELEC and ruled in favor of the Archdiocese (even if the Archdiocese has not made an acceptable defense in response to the poster size).

Free speech or the question of “dapat nga bang ipagbawal? (should it be banned?)” is not the issue of the case. How? Now that the Court has allowed the Archdiocese to free speech, it can maintain the posters where they are BUT these still violate the standard on size. Size, by the way is a content-neutral regulation. So the case is back to square one. What is the sense of having standards on size when it isn’t followed? (This explains why despite valid persistent protests from urban communities, gigantic signages (billboards) are still being placed in hazard-prone areas and where they provide maximum distraction to motorists and pedestrians.)

Supposing COMELEC harbors malicious intention behind the regulation, as media reports have been implying, was this part of the case? the evidence presented in the case? If not, the Court cannot presume.

But more importantly where were the Zoning Official(s) and the Zoning Board of Bacolod? Why were regulations that are within their authority and responsibility handled at the onset by the COMELEC National Office?

Political campaign signs in the countries of the North are regulated in the zoning codes or ordinances of localities. In Phoenix, Arizona, for example

All individuals or organizations are required to file notification which includes the name, address, and telephone number of a person(s) who will be responsible for the proper erection, on-going maintenance and timely removal of the political signs.

Political signs are allowed to be placed on private property and in the public right-of-way. For regulations related to political signs on private property, please refer to the Phoenix Zoning Ordinance. For regulations related to political signs in the right-of-way along streets, please refer to Arizona Revised Statute S16-1019…

While political signs that are 32 square feet or less are exempt from obtaining permits for private property only, other provisions of the Sign Ordinance and Arizona State law remain applicable.

All non-commercial signs, including political signs, may be erected on a lot or property with permission from the legal property owner, so long as each sign does not exceed 32 square feet. However, as stated above, you are required to file notification with P&D.

All political signs on private property shall be removed within ten days after the election to which they refer, as stated in Section 705.B.2.h.(3) of the Phoenix Zoning Ordinance. After the ten-day period, the Zoning Ordinance states that enforcement personnel can confiscate signs, and/or a formal citation can be issued.

In the Philippines, zoning ordinances are silent on political signs. But there are for business signs (incidentally, some counties in the US regulate political signs as business signs; there is no explicit statement similar to that here.) In Tagaytay, for example

No advertising, billboards or business signs whether on or off premises of an establishment shall be displayed or put for public view without clearance from the Zoning Administrator. Clearance for such signs or billboards maybe granted only when the same is appropriate for the permitted use for a zone and the sign thereof is not excessive, taking into account the bulk or the size of the building or structure and the business practices or usage’s of the locality and same shall in no case obstruct the view of the lake and other scenic spots. Obnoxious signs that would constitute nuisance to adjoining property owners, distract motorists or constitute as hazards to public safety shall not be allowed in any area and no sign project or extend to public property. Temporary sign and billboards for not more two (2) months may be allowed by the Zoning Administrator upon payment of corresponding fees to City. The permit for such sign shall indicate the location, size, slope, contents and type of construction. It shall be unlawful to maintain an obsolete sign by reason discontinuance of business, service or activity for more than sixty (60) days therefrom.

In San Fernando, Pampanga

Advertising and business signs/ billboards to be displayed or built for public view in any of the districts herein enumerated must comply with the provisions of the National Building Code of the Philippines (P.D. No. 1096) and other existing policies and/or regulations including those that may later be adopted by the city government to provide maximum safety to lives and properties.

When the signage extends beyond the applicable regulations, a variance is needed and there is such a procedure for it.

1. A written application for an exception or variance shall be filled with the Local Zoning Board of Adjustment and Appeals (LZBAA) citing the section of (this) the Ordinance under which the same is sought, and stating the ground/s thereof.
2. Upon the filing of the application, a visible project sign, (indicating the name and nature of the proposed project) shall be posted at the project site.
3. The Local Zoning Board of Adjustment and Appeals shall undertake preliminary studies on the application, including the conduct of ocular survey.
4. A written affidavit of non-objection to the project by the owners of the properties adjacent to the project shall be filed by the applicant with the LZBAA at least fifteen (15) days prior to the decision for exception/variance.
5. In case of objection coming from any of the adjacent owners, THE LZBAA shall hold public hearing/s.
6. At the hearing, any party may appear in person, or be represented by agent/s. All interested parties shall be accorded the opportunity to be heard and to present evidences and testimonies.
7. The LZBAA shall render a decision within thirty (30) days from the filing of the application. Exclusive of the time spent for the preparation of the written affidavit of non-objection and the public hearing in case of any objection to the grant of the exception/variance.

These point to the centralized arrangement concerning political signs despite a decentralized government. The effect of this is that local governments – supposedly the Zoning Officials and Boards – are kept out of activities happening in their own backyards. They are rendered helpless in the face of violations in their own yards. Moreover, there are 42,000+ villages nationwide and only one COMELEC National Office. Even if violations get to the national agency’s attention, by the time it has made a decision and reaches the concerned localities much damage may have been done.

Further, by having COMELEC, not exactly a disinterested party by the way its history has evolved in this country, draw up regulations for political signs, politicos will, naturally, speculate that the agency has some wicked motivations behind, say, a neutral and basic regulation as the size of a sign. It doesn’t also help that COMELEC regulations vary, from one administration to another. Inconsistency inhibits initiative (parents who are inconsistent with their rules find that their children won’t at some point respond even to good discipline). This also explains why despite national/COMELEC regulations, there has been no political party, on its own initiative, that has gone back to the localities after the election or within the prescribed period in order to take down its signs and clean after themselves.

Political sign regulations in developed countries (if we are to learn from them) are part of standard operating procedures of local governments. The Federal Election Commission in the US is tasked “to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of Presidential elections”. Similarly, COMELEC should disengage from tasks that are best handled by local governments through their zoning ordinances and engage itself in strategic concerns relevant to its mandate (e.g. fraud, and ease of voting). Local governments should review their zoning ordinances and include specific regulations for political signs.

The Court’s TRO as this article would like to point out has nothing to do at all with the presence of the relic of St. Therese in the Cathedral (Bacolod). The core issue behind the feud over the posters has been pestering for a long time and if there was any miracle at all by the Saint, it is that the core issue (i.e. zoning regulations) has resurfaced in better light; that between “patay” and “buhay”, light will always triumph regardless of connotations placed on it by humans. Besides, from the photo above, the statue of Christ welcoming churchgoers is tiny next to the posters. By their sheer size alone, the posters compel church-goers’ attention toward them – clearly a distraction. And what is the Church for?

Churchgoers, “laboring and heavy-laden” from the world, would want to enter the church in order to “lay down their burdens”, know “the peace that the world cannot give”, and receive “rest”. The last thing they seek or want is for the harshness, accusations, and judgments of the world to be repeated on the altar by a representative of Christ. They have that in extra abundance outside the church. The clergy should, in this, remind itself again of Jesus’ anger and reprimand of those who set up (earthly) business on the church’ premises. For the clergy, the lesson there is that by focusing too much of their time and energies in affairs that the world outside can already handle it is liable to neglect its duties by Christ – its Bride – to whom it made its first and only covenant. If it is free speech, the clergy can always have free speech but in exchange for what in terms of heavenly assurances for themselves and those they shepherd? Their arguments should therefore reflect the life and teachings of Christ who welcomes everyone into the Church (which is why it’s called universal). Hence instead of arguing in courts for some poster, they ought to listen to and learn from their Cardinal.

The COMELEC regulation therefore makes sense even when held up against the teaching standards of Christ whose standards are “not of this world” nor “of its courts”.

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