WALLINGFORD — The Parks and Recreation Department hasn’t given up on finding a way to allow advertising in town parks, which would create a new revenue stream.
Reviving a topic last visited almost two years ago, the Town Council’s ordinance committee discussed what it would take to let local businesses place permanent ads in town athletic fields at its meeting last week.
Town zoning regulations on signs don't allow advertising in residential zones, which is where most parks are located. The regulations have no exceptions for parks.
In 2014, the town zoning regulations were amended to allow high school athletic sponsors' signs and banners on school fields, after being granted Board of Education approval.
The ordinance committee last discussed the ads in parks issue in June 2019, but the the proposal was pulled back at the request of Parks and Recreation officials.
Parks and Recreation Director Kenny Michaels said that since then, the pandemic and budget cuts have forced department officials to “get creative and look at what other sources and other opportunities that may be available for us.”
Jason Michael, Recreation Commission member, said he envisions ads, possibly in a uniform style, would be displayed on athletic fields like baseball backstops and outfield fencing.
“I see other towns that have done this in a nice and organized way,” Michael said.
He added that he would buy advertising for his small businesses.
It’s unclear whether a Town Council ordinance alone would allow ads in parks.
The Town Code, which is made up of municipal laws and ordinances, doesn’t prohibit ads in parks — town zoning regulations do, so Parks and Recreation officials might have to appeal to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a change in the regulations before the council considers an ordinance. “I just think now is the time to take a look at it,” Michael said. “It’s a valuable stream of revenue that could help ... our parks, and also help out local businesses.”Free speech
Town Corporation Counsel Janis M. Small has said in the past that she had concerns about free speech issues if parks are opened up to commercial advertising.
When a town opens up publicly-owned land to advertisements, she said last year, town officials "can't pick and choose the message of a sign" under the First Amendment.
Small said Tuesday that there could be a legal path to allowing ads in parks with the plan being to have it entirely under the town’s control, because it falls under government speech.
“Given that it would be totally controlled by the town,” she said, “that would be a viable, legal option … When government speaks, it doesn’t have the same rules.”
Many other Connecticut towns allow ads in parks and don’t seem to be overly concerned about potential lawsuits over free speech infringement.
Michael said that when the issue was before the council two years ago, he contacted other towns that allow ads in parks for advice on pursuing a plan in Wallingford.
He asked officials in other towns how they handle a business that wants to advertise tobacco, alcohol or other adult-oriented products.
“Every town I talked to, they simply, after laughing, said, ‘well we told them no,’” he said, adding that he believes it would be “self-policing,” with adult-oriented businesses not wanting their ads in parks in the first place.Open space
There’s also the question of where within the parks ads would be allowed.
Town Councilor Christopher Shortell, ordinance committee chairman, said that the town Conservation Commission contacted the council with concerns about whether ads would be limited to athletic fields or be allowed in the open spaces, such as Tyler Mill.
Michaels said he is open to exploring sponsorships and ads in all types of parks, however “our intent isn't to put 3-foot-by-6-foot billboards down the (Quinnipiac River) Linear Trail sporting advertisement.”
When Shortell asked if any members objected to the idea of ads in parks, no one spoke. The council didn’t take any action Tuesday.
“I think it’s pretty clear you have the council’s support on this,” Shortell said to the Recreation Commission members.
He added that even if an ordinance isn’t needed, the council could pass a resolution supporting the idea.