Michelle Reese strives to create a relaxing atmosphere for clients of her Falmouth physical therapy practice.

But that became more challenging Monday, when she and her husband found the street outside their business populated with political campaign signs, the vast majority of them advocating for Trump/Pence. “We open at 7 a.m. and we heard from people right away,” she said. “Politics isn’t very holistic.”

Reese was not alone in her concern. Business owners up and down Route 1 in Falmouth worry that customers will assume they are associated with the signs that now run through much of the town’s business district. The signs are planted on public property, but Reese says some customers may not realize that local businesses have no control over campaign materials placed just feet from their doors.

“We’re a small business,” Reese said. “We don’t put political preferences out there. Everybody we have coming in has all sorts of political ideas and they’re all respected.”

‘WE UNDERSTAND THE FRUSTRATION’

Under state law, campaigns can post signs in public rights-of-way as long as they are at least 30 feet from signs for the same campaign, include contact information for the entities who erect them and a date range showing when the sign was posted and when it must come down. Each sign has a lifespan of six weeks under the law, which was recently amended by the Legislature.

On Thursday, Route 1 in Falmouth’s business district was lined with campaign signs, with the roughly 100 signs for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump far outnumbering those for any other campaign.

“We understand the frustration,” said Ted Talbot, Maine Department of Transportation spokesman. “But we do need to remind not only business owners, but everybody that it is illegal to take signage in the state’s right of way.”

Anyone caught stealing or vandalizing a political sign can be subject to a $250 civil penalty. Depending on the severity of the offense, they also can face more serious charges such as theft or criminal mischief. Talbot said the DOT would outline changes to the sign law next week.

Some business owners said they felt compelled to do something about the signs.

“I took them down,” said Peter Sowles, one of the owners of the Morong Falmouth car dealership. “I’m all for freedom of speech, but I should have the right not to promote any candidate as a business.”

Even so, Sowles said he would not be removing any more signs after speaking with Falmouth police.

Sowles took action after he heard from multiple customers who told him they would not feel comfortable buying a car from him if he supported a particular political candidate. In those cases, Sowles said, he explained that the signs were on public property and separate from his business.

He says he worries more about the customers who don’t call. Other business owners echoed those concerns.

“You never know if you’ve lost business,” said Peter Leavitt, owner of Leavitt & Sons Deli. “It’s a public space but that’s not the perception.”

‘WE HAVE THE ABILITY TO DISAGREE’

John Moon, who put up many of the signs on Route 1 in Falmouth, said he sympathizes with business owners who worry that customers will get the wrong message. Still, he thinks people should obey the law.

“I’m apolitical,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s Hillary or Trump or somebody else. What I do care about is the right to put these signs up in public spaces.”

Moon said he posted the signs as a favor to a friend and was deeply disheartened by the ferocity of the response he had received.

His friend, David Jones, is chairman of Making Maine Great Again, a PAC supporting Donald Trump. He also owns FO Bailey Real Estate on Route 1 in Falmouth. Jones said people who tampered with the signs were missing the point.

“I’ve had political signs in front of my business that I don’t agree with.” Jones said. “But I believe that what makes our country great is that we have the ability to disagree. That’s not true in every part of the world.”

Jones said he hoped the signs would encourage people of all political stripes to get out and vote. “We can vote,” Jones said. “But so many people don’t exercise that right.”

Kate McCormick can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

[email protected]


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