Gym owners sue Sacramento over sign ban

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 - 8:09 am

The owners of a local gym sued the city of Sacramento Tuesday after officials enforced a little-known law banning sandwich board advertisements.

Carl and Elizabeth Fears, owners of the Got Muscle Health Club in the 8200 block of Folsom Boulevard, said they have long used a sandwich board to advertise their business. But last November, code enforcement officers demanded the couple take down the sign.

Given the prevalence of sandwich boards in front of Sacramento businesses, the Fears believe they are being singled out and accuse the city of violating their First Amendment rights.

"People drive by so fast," Carl Fears said. "We need the sign."

Under city code, sandwich boards – also known as A-frames – are illegal, with certain exemptions granted for real estate firms, political campaigns and nonprofits.

The 23-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court seeks a permanent injunction preventing the city from enforcing the sign code. The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm in Arlington, Va., is helping the Fears fight the city.

Rob O'Connor, operations manager for the Community Development Department, said the law has been on the books for at least two decades. He said the regulations exist for aesthetic reasons and to protect the public from potential hazards.

"Basically, A-frames are illegal in the city," he said. "The exemptions come from state and federal law."

The little-known sign code is rarely enforced. Officials have received 36 complaints from the public since 2006, with the bulk for Old Sacramento, according to city records. The city could not provide data on the actual number of citations issued.

Enforcement of the code is driven by citizen complaints, O'Connor said.

"Sacramento is flouting the First Amendment," said Erica Smith, the lead attorney on the case. "They are arbitrarily restraining speech."

City spokesman Maurice Chaney wouldn't comment on the lawsuit because officials are still evaluating it.

After repeated visits by code enforcement and the threat of financial penalties, the Fears decided to remove the sandwich board in May. Since then, they said, business has slowed because of the loss in advertising.

"Everything should be equal," Elizabeth Fears said.

Call The Bee's Richard Chang, (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

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