The Wallingford 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.
New revenue streams are always welcome, but this one may turn out to be controversial. Reviving a topic that has been discussed in previous years, the Town Council's ordinance committee recently mulled what it would take to let local businesses place permanent ads in town athletic fields.
In 2014, the town zoning regulations were amended to allow high school athletic sponsors’ signs and banners on school fields, with permission of the Board of Education. Otherwise, zoning regulations don't allow advertising signs in residential zones, which is where most parks are located.
Parks and Recreation Director Kenny Michaels said that since last year, the pandemic and budget cuts have forced the department to look around for new funding sources. “I see other towns that have done this in a nice and organized way,” Jason Michael, a Recreation Commission member, said, and it would help the parks department and local businesses as well.
When asked last week if any members of the ordinance committee objected to the idea of ads in parks, no one spoke. It's unclear whether a Town Council ordinance alone would allow ads in parks. 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.
However, certain questions arise:
■Would residents object to “unsightly” signs placed anywhere other than on the outfield fence of a ballpark? What about open-space areas like Tyler Mill or the Linear Trail? ■Would the town be able to control the size and design of any such signs?■Would the town be able to control the content of such advertising? What if someone wanted to buy an ad for liquor, say, or tobacco, or sexually oriented products? Or, for that matter, a political ad? Can the town just say “No”?
And that’s where the First Amendment comes in.
Wallingford 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. Town officials “can't pick and choose the message of a sign,” she said.
However, Small said last week that there could be a way around that problem because it falls under government speech. “… When government speaks, it doesn't have the same rules.”
At any rate, the idea provides food for thought — and for residents to express their opinions. It will be interesting to follow the progress of this option.