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Watertown First Amendment flap ends with a compromise and a staring contest

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The sign showdown between First Amendment crusader Robert J. Comenole and the town of Watertown Planning Board, which was tense at times and even included an icy staring contest, ended on an anticlimactic note Monday night.

After five weeks of fighting the town on its sign ordinance, which he claimed was too narrowly defined and restricted freedom of speech, Mr. Comenole agreed to limit the number of signs in his yard to three small temporary placards, for which he would not need a permit.

Mr. Comenole first appeared before the Planning Board five weeks ago to obtain a permit for an 8-by-6-foot sign criticizing a landscaping contractor he claimed had cheated him out of more than $2,600. The Planning Board denied his request, prompting him to launch a fight against what he considered the town’s effort to curtail his rights.

After being turned away further by the town Zoning Board of Appeals and the Town Council, Mr. Comenole began protesting the local sign ordinance by rewriting the sign to say “With these signs, on my own property (all these signs are banned by the Town of Wat’n) I hereby assert my right to free speech.”

To the left and the right of the large sign, Mr. Comenole placed several others advertising a variety of causes, including Stopping Child Trafficking Now, the walk to end Alzheimer’s, the Humane Society and saluting the troops. A sign imprinted with a graphic of the U.S. Constitution anchored the display.

The signs all were professionally produced and conformed to the town’s sign ordinance in terms of size.

The problem is the ordinance allows only signs that display the wording and graphics of a business, its principal service or purpose, its address and its phone number. And for these permanent signs, a permit is required. Mr. Comenole argued that the ordinance was too narrow and did not allow for freedom of expression.

A permit is not required for certain types of temporary and permanent signs and symbols, such as real estate signs, campaign endorsements, flags and driveway signs. Mr. Comenole noted that the law does not address signs that say “God Bless America,” “We Support Our Troops,” or “Welcome Home, Mike.”

In its discussion on Monday, the Planning Board told Mr. Comenole that such signs could be considered temporary political signs and thus would be exempt from the ordinance. Board members asked him to limit his proposed 12 signs to three so that they would not distract drivers traveling past the home of Mr. Comenole’s father, which is on Watertown Center Loop just behind the former Harby’s Hots restaurant.

Mr. Comenole agreed that limiting the signs to three would be safe for traffic and said that he would abide by the board’s recommendation. He said that he would plan to display a smaller version of his rewritten sign between two signs supporting one of a number of popular causes.

The rewritten sign would be amended to remove the phrase “all these signs are banned by the Town of Wat’n,” after Planning Board Co-Chairman Thomas E. Boxberger objected to the language, saying that the town never expressly banned Mr. Comenole’s signs.

As Mr. Comenole and the board seemed to reach an agreement, the tense atmosphere eased a bit, and Mr. Comenole grew quiet.

“It almost sounds now that you don’t have a item to carry forth in a crusade because we’re agreeing with you,” Mr. Boxberger said.

But as the proceedings wound down, not all the exchanges were pleasant. Mr. Comenole became locked in a staring contest with a member of the board with whom he had verbally tussled earlier.

“You blinked!” the board member said, before turning back to his colleagues.

Mr. Comenole, who is a Watertown native, has not lived in the area for many years. He returned to help his aging father move into a nursing home and to fix up his father’s house so he could sell it.

In the process of rehabilitating the property, Mr. Comenole encountered a landscaper who absconded with money given to him as an advance payment for materials.

After attempts to communicate with the contractor failed, Mr. Comenole decided to shame him by posting a large sign in his yard describing the situation. He left the lawn in semi-disarray as evidence of the landscaper’s negligence.

On Monday night, after the meeting, Mr. Comenole said “it’s a total cop-out,” on the board’s part to classify his signs as political messages.

“Traffic safety was just a red herring,” he added.

Before the meeting closed, Mr. Boxberger said the Planning Board would be taking a look at the sign ordinance as part of a periodic review of the town code.

“If that’s true, I’m glad they’re going to do it,” Mr. Comenole said.

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