MANCHESTER — Some uninvited and unwelcome political signs on Route 17, in front of Lakeside Orchards, cost the business some regular customers, the owner said, so an employee took the signs down.

The problem is, removing them may have been in violation of state law.

Owner Marilyn Meyerhans said political signs, including some signs against the ballot question for same-sex marriage, were put along the road on the orchard’s property without the permission of anyone who works there.

She said some passersby assumed the signs were put there by someone at the orchard, or at least with the orchard’s permission, so Paula McDougal, manager of the retail store at the orchard, and Meyerhans’ sister, recently took them down.

“We’re intentionally apolitical,” said Meyerhans, who also owns The Apple Farm in Fairfield. “We want to be welcoming to everybody. Gay marriage is a hot button issue for people. We try to stay away from that in this business. The gay marriage signs are the ones that got phone calls. But we personally don’t want any signs there. The store doesn’t have an opinion.”

Meyerhans isn’t alone — many businesses are being put in uncomfortable positions as Election Day nears and more political signs appear along roads.

McDougal decided to take down all the signs on the orchard side of the road following calls from customers upset by the anti same-sex marriage “No on Question 1″ signs.

Meyerhans said she got calls about the sign, including one regular customer said she would never come to the orchard again because of the sign and what she incorrectly assumed was the orchard’s endorsement of the point of view, according to Meyerhans. She said she doesn’t want political signs associated with her businesses, whether they are for a candidate or about a referendum issue.

McDougal said she removed the signs a couple of days ago. She said the signs were along the orchard’s property, but she’s not sure if any of them were within the state right of way on Route 17. She left signs on the other side of the road alone.

Removing political signs when they’re in allowed spaces is illegal under Maine law, punishable by a fine of up to $250. Allowed spots include within the state right of way along roads.

Landowners can remove signs on their property, but not when it is within the state right of way.

“Within the right of way, only two people can take political signs down — the candidates’ (or campaigns’) own people, or the property owner,” said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. “And if it is within the state right of way, the property owner is the DOT. Signs are free speech as long as they stay in the right of way. There’s no restriction on size, color, or obnoxiousness.”

Who has the right?

State rights of way are generally meant to allow for road maintenance, such as ditching and other work. The land may be mowed and maintained by the property owner but the land is not the private property of the owner, Talbot said.

Talbot said state rights of way generally extend 33 feet from the center line of the road, but there are exceptions.

Talbot said he understands having political signs placed in the state right of way near businesses can be a problem for the business because people may perceive the sign’s proximity as an endorsement.

McDougal and Meyerhans said just because something is legal, doesn’t necessarily make it right.

“It may be perfectly legal, perhaps, but the other side of it is the reaction people are having is pretty extreme at times,” Meyerhans said. “Our little business could be badly hurt by that. I just want people to think about what they’re doing. We don’t want to stifle free speech in any way, shape or form. But maybe there should be a sense of politeness.”

Peter Thompson, executive director of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber does not advise its member businesses about whether to allow or place political signs on their property. He said the chamber stays out of partisan political issues.

McDougal suggested someone who puts a sign close to someone else’s business should get permission from the property owner, or maybe leave a phone number on the sign, so the landowner can contact whoever placed the sign.

She said she talked with people at the Manchester Town Office and the consensus there seemed to be she’d be OK taking down the signs.

“Technically, maybe some were and some weren’t in the state right of way,” McDougal said. “I hope I don’t get in trouble. No one has come to arrest me yet.”

Another sign case

Matt Hutson, campaign director for Protect Maine Marriage, a coalition formed to oppose Question 1, said the campaign gives guidance to volunteers on where signs can be legally placed. He said if the signs are placed in a front of a business, it should be done respectfully and with common sense.

He said he understands when a business doesn’t want a sign about Question 1 in front of its property. But he acknowledged some volunteers with the campaign, as in nearly every other campaign, may have a lot of enthusiasm and the campaign can’t control where each and every volunteer puts every single sign.

However, Hutson said a business being attacked for its perceived opposition to same-sex marriage illustrates the intolerance the campaign believes will come about if the question passes.

“Here you have a business owner who is not even affiliated with the campaign, having people attack them for having a sign in proximity to the business,” Hutson said. “If it was a sign for a candidate, no one would be in a ruckus about that. But the moment you put up a protect marriage sign, it’s the only one that gets a reaction.”

Hutson drew parallels between the Manchester signs and a sign — in this case put up by an owner — at Treworgy Family Orchards in the Penobscot County town of Levant.

The orchard in Levant, according to news reports, took down the side Monday after customers who supported same-sex marriage said they would boycott the business. Even after the sign came down, the business’s Facebook page had an extensive back and forth going on between people on both sides of the issue.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]