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Beck v. Town of Groton

United States District Court, N.D. New York

April 1, 2015

JOHN A. BECK, Plaintiff,
v.
TOWN OF GROTON, Defendant.

OFFICE OF NICHOLAS A. PASSALACQUA NICHOLAS A. PASSALACQUA, ESQ., Utica, NY, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

POMEROY, ARMSTRONG, CASULLO & MONTY, LLP, VICTORIA J. MONTY, ESQ. Cortland, NY, Attorneys for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM-DECISION & ORDER

DAVID N. HURD, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This action arises from the enforcement of a municipal land use and development code provision against plaintiff John A. Beck ("plaintiff" or "Beck"). In April 2011 plaintiff filed a pro se complaint, in which he alleged that the defendant Town of Groton ("defendant" or "the Town") and its officials violated his constitutional rights by issuing numerous citations related to large signs he had posted on his private property located within the Town.[1]

In July 2012, a Memorandum-Decision and Order ("MDO") was issued denying the Town's motion for judgment on the pleadings. Beck v. Coats, 2012 WL 2990017 (N.D.N.Y. July 19, 2012). Defendant did not file a motion for summary judgment thereafter. Following two unsuccessful settlement conferences, and after a lengthy stay of the proceedings pending the outcome of a related enforcement action in state court, a one-day bench trial was conducted on September 23, 2014, in Utica, New York.[2] Attorney Nicholas A. Passalacqua represented Beck in a pro bono capacity at the bench trial.

Two witnesses testified at the trial: Beck and Gary Coats, the Town's Code Enforcement Officer ("Coats"). The parties stipulated to the admission of numerous exhibits. They similarly stipulated to the fact that the signs on Beck's property did exceed the size and quantity permitted by the applicable Town code. At the conclusion of the trial, the parties were afforded time to review the transcript of the proceeding and submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Those submissions have been received and reviewed with the transcript. The following are the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a).

II. FINDINGS OF FACT

The Town's Land Use and Development Code of 1995, Article 3, section 316.7, as amended in 1997, permits a maximum of two signs of up to fifty square feet in size on property zoned Rural-Agricultural ("RA").[3] Def.'s Ex. 1, § 316.7. The stated purpose of section 316 of the Code "is to establish specifications for the provision of signs in the Town of Groton which will permit proper identification, preserve and enhance the visual character and quality of the area, and prevent installations which are particularly distracting and hazardous to vehicular traffic." Id . § 316.1.

In early 2009, Beck began erecting large signs on his property, which is zoned RA and includes approximately eight-tenths of a mile of frontage along Route 222 in Groton, New York. In June of that year Coats met with plaintiff and requested that he remove the signs that exceeded section 316.7's limits. Beck refused. On August 4, 2009, Coats mailed plaintiff a letter noting the continued presence of the signs and requesting a meeting to discuss the matter. Pl.'s Ex. 1.

Over ten months later, on June 10, 2010, Coats issued a "Notice of Violation-Order to Remedy" directing plaintiff to remove all signs from his property that were in excess of that permitted by section 316.7. Pl.'s Ex. 2. On July 21, 2010-after Beck failed to remove any signs-Coats served him with a summons charging him with violating section 316.7 by displaying "[s]igns that exceed the number and the square footage allowed." Pl.'s Ex. 3. A bench trial was eventually scheduled for February 8, 2011. However, when plaintiff arrived at the Town court on that date, he was advised that the case had been adjourned. On March 29, 2011, plaintiff was provided with a certificate of disposition noting that the violation had been "dismissed without prejudice." Pl.'s Ex. 5.

Beck initiated this federal action on April 15, 2011. Six days later, on April 21, the Town filed a summons and complaint against him in the Supreme Court, Tompkins County, alleging a violation of section 316.7 and seeking to enjoin him from displaying his signs. Pl.'s Ex. 6. In December 2011, Hon. Robert C. Mulvey granted the Town's motion for summary judgment and ordered Beck to bring his property into compliance with section 316.7 within thirty days. Pl.'s Ex. 7. Plaintiff reportedly removed all signs. However, he apparently reinstalled the signs because, in March 2012, Judge Mulvey entered an order finding him in contempt of the December 2011 order and directing him to remove all signs in excess of that permitted by section 316.7. Pl.'s Ex. 8. Beck complied.

In July 2012 an MDO was issued in this federal action denying the Town's motion for judgment on the pleadings. Beck, 2012 WL 2990017. Upon receiving a copy of that decision, plaintiff mistakenly believed he had prevailed on the merits of his claim. In accordance with that understanding, he immediately re-erected his signs.

In May 2013 Coats-in his official capacity-made a criminal mischief complaint to the Tompkins County Sheriff's Department regarding swastikas displayed on Beck's signs. Coats, who drives by Beck's property every day on his way to work, informed the Sheriff's officer that he thought "the person who did it is targeting him" and noted the ongoing litigation between him and Beck. Pl.'s Ex. 9. In fact, one of the signs read "GARY COATS BELONGS IN PRISON" and had two large swastikas on it. Def.'s Ex. 2-J. Coats "agreed" when the officer advised that he would ask Beck to paint over the swastikas. Pl.'s Ex. 9. The officer responded to ...


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