What are the rules governing the placement of directional signs?

QUESTION: I have placed several directional signs so that people can find their way to an open house I have planned for this weekend. One of my client’s neighbors is complaining about a sign I placed near the corner of his lot.  It is actually in the state right of way and not directly in front of his home. Nevertheless, he has asked my client to have the sign moved. My client wants the sign to remain. What should I do about this situation?

ANSWER: For reasons discussed more fully below, if your sign is posted in a state-controlled right-of-way, you would have to move it in order to comply with North Carolina law.

The Real Estate Commission’s rules do not address directional signs. The only signs mentioned in the Commission’s advertising rule, Rule A.0105, are “for sale” and “for rent” signs. That rule states, in part, that brokers “shall not advertise or display a ‘for sale’ or ‘for rent’ sign on any real estate without the written consent of the owner or the owner’s authorized agent.”

What if a broker wants to place a sign on property that is not for sale or lease? The Commission published some additional guidance in its 2013-2014 Broker-in-Charge course materials. There, the Commission wrote that while written permission from the property owner is always preferable, Rule A.0105 does not require permission to be in writing if (a) the property where the sign is placed is not for sale and (b) the property owner verbally consents. The discussion concludes: “Minimally, oral consent is required, however, to avoid trespass charges.

The Commission’s Real Estate Manual discusses whether signs can legally be placed in public rights of way. The Manual cautions brokers to comply with state law, local ordinances, and restrictive covenants when placing any signs relating to their business. The Manual notes: “State law prohibits placing any private signs on rights-of-way, medians or other state-owned property.” The applicable state statute can be found here. With the exception of compliant political signs, this statute prohibits the posting of commercial signs on any public rights-of-way that are controlled and maintained by the NC Department of Transportation. While we have not yet heard of any prosecutions, the statute states that a person who violates it is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Agents must also be aware of local ordinances and community restrictive covenants, both of which frequently regulate the placement of signs on rights-of-way that are not state-controlled. If the applicable municipality or homeowner’s association has an approval process in place, it should be followed. Compliance is particularly important whenever a neighbor or other property owner expresses a complaint.

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