A few months ago, Bill and Diane Durston placed an “In Our America” yard sign in front of their Gold River home.
The sign, resembling an American flag, states: “In Our America, all people are equal, love is love, black lives matter, immigrants and refugees are welcome, science is real, women’s rights are human rights, people and planet are valued over profit, diversity is celebrated.”
“I saw these signs in the Women’s March,” Diane Durston said. “And what I felt was, in this period of divisiveness, this message seemed to be inclusive.”
Soon, the Durstons said, people began coming to their door to ask where they’d gotten the sign. So Diane Durston obtained more signs to distribute to interested parties, including about 15 residents of the Marshall Village neighborhood where they live.
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Not everyone in the neighborhood is happy.
Last week, the Marshall Village Owners Association board of directors sent a letter to residents expressing concern about a potential “proliferation of yard signs in our village.”
The letter asks residents to “consider removing” yard signs “if you feel that the sign has been up long enough for your voice to have been heard,” or placing them close to the front porch “in order to present a harmonious, uncluttered appearance to your front yard.” The board writes it hopes this “will prevent our community from becoming littered with signs,” which could “cause a negative impact to the value of our homes.”
The letter also acknowledges “the right of all individuals to express their views.” But Bill Durston, a retired physician and Vietnam veteran who twice ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for Congress, says he sees the letter as an attempt at suppression.
“Basically what they’re saying is, ‘We support the right to free speech – as long as you keep it to yourself,’ ” he said. “ ‘Don’t share it with anybody else.’ ”
The homeowners association’s general manager declined comment in a phone call. The letter does not specifically mention the “In Our America” sign – though it was nearly the only yard sign visible in the Marshall Village neighborhood Tuesday.
The sign appeared outside about a dozen of the village’s large, brown houses. Many more flew the American flag, while one house displayed a sign stating, “God Bless America.”
The “In Our America” sign and others with similar social messages have spread nationally since Donald Trump won last year’s presidential election. Locally, they are more common in liberal city neighborhoods than in suburbs like Gold River.
It’s not clear whether the neighborhood opposition is motivated by politics. More people in Durston’s precinct voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton than Trump last year, 51 percent to 44 percent, according to Sacramento County election data.
Durston points to a section of the California Civil Code which states that the governing documents of a “common interest” development cannot prohibit the displaying of non-commercial signs, posters, flags or banners, unless they present a threat to public safety or violate a law.
The letter from the homeowners association does not explicitly tell residents to take down their signs. The association’s bylaws state that the board of directors can establish rules for the location, type, size, number and color of signs that are visible to common areas, but that it cannot restrict signs “which by law cannot be prohibited,” according to its website.
David Zepponi, president and CEO of the California Association of Community Managers, said he is unfamiliar with the specifics of the Gold River issue but that a role of homeowners associations is to encourage residents to maintain the “aesthetics” of the community and relations between neighbors.
“They can’t abridge freedom of speech – that’s a constitutional right, that’s important, and HOAs know that,” Zepponi said. “But by a different standard, they also have an obligation to make sure communities are maintained to the standard that the community wants.”
This is not the first time Durston has been at odds with the Marshall Village Owners Association. In 2003, when Durston flew a United Nations flag at his home to protest the war in Iraq, the association told him the flag violated neighborhood rules and he should take it down or face fines.
Durston refused and went on to testify before a state legislative committee, which enacted the Civil Code protection later that year.
This time, Durston has responded to the board of directors asking for a retraction and an apology. Durston said he continues to display his sign in response to what he sees as “a serious threat to our democracy” under the current political administration.
“Some people in this neighborhood like to close the garage doors, close up the house and think everything is just peachy,” he said. “But that’s not the case, and I think part of what bothers people is the reminder that something is dreadfully wrong with our country.”
Despite their message, the signs have become a somewhat divisive issue. Durston said he received one anonymous piece of mail saying he was “junking up the neighborhood.” Recently, he said, a neighbor approached Diane in front of their house and “berated” her about the sign.
Both Robert Halseth, 75, and Ali Hosseinion, 71, have “In Our America” signs in their front yards. Halseth said he saw parts of the letter from the homeowners association as “pretty much an infringement on free speech.” Hosseinion described it as “kind of intimidating.”
“It was written very softly,” Hosseinion said. “But at the same time if you are a foreigner, Iranian-American, it is more intimidating than if it goes to a white Anglo-Saxon.”
Hosseinion, a retired mechanical engineer who said he emigrated from Iran when he was 22, said he had moved his sign from a prominent spot closer to his house after receiving the letter. “I was thinking that, well, it is maybe kind of an eyesore to have them (placed) randomly,” he said. “I did that to just be more orderly.”
The owner of the “God Bless America” sign, Joel Pappas, said he’d also moved his sign closer to his house, in order to cooperate with the homeowners association.
“I’m actually OK with it,” said Pappas, 72, a pastor. “It’s probably a good idea in terms of not cluttering up the neighborhood.”
Pappas said he put up a campaign sign for Donald Trump prior to last year’s election, but it was destroyed while he was away. He only recently displayed his current sign.
“I just wanted to support our country and our president and stuff like that,” Pappas said. “I know the other signs have a little bit of a different flavor to them.”
Liza Kim, 41, said she recently moved to the neighborhood. She does not have a sign in her front yard, but said seeing them doesn’t bother her.
“It’s nothing racial, it’s nothing religious, it’s a positive message,” Kim said. “And if it’s not going to hurt anyone, it’s not attacking anyone, it’s OK.”