Real estate agents in Westford, Mass., now must pay a fee for posting their signs. The building department in Westford set a new fee schedule in March that includes a new $200 per year real estate sign fee. In the nearby town of Chelmsford, the annual real estate sign fee is $150.

A local newspaper, the Westford Eagle, reported that the fee is charged to real estate agencies who place temporary signs on private property, while homeowners who are selling their own homes are exempt from the fees. The Westford town manager’s office had no comment Friday about the new fee, which is listed on the town’s Web site.

Some Realtors in the area of Westford, a bedroom community of about 16,400 residents in Northeastern Massachusetts, aren’t too happy about the new fees.

“Several of our members called, concerned about (the new fees). We are in the process of researching it,” Anne Rendle, CEO for the Northeast Association of Realtors. The group has about 1,400 Realtor and 200 affiliate members, includes Realtors from 15 cities and towns, and is based in Chelmsford.

Rendle said there is concern that Realtors may have been singled out as a profession with the new fee, and that it would be “extremely unfair” if the ordinance does not apply to other professionals who also place signs on private property.

“Our initial concern is about the equal protection clause,” she said.

Real estate signs are an advertising mainstay for attracting interested buyers to for-sale homes. Local government efforts to impose fees on such signs can be worrisome for realty salespeople because the fees add to the cost of marketing for-sale property.

Representatives at the National Association of Realtors and Massachusetts Association of Realtors said they are aware of the real estate sign fee in Westford, yet they haven’t announced any plan of action related to the fee.

“We’re not presently considering (any action), and generally become involved only upon request from, for example, a local or state Realtor association. We haven’t received such a request,” Ralph Holmen, NAR associate general counsel, said.

“We’ve been involved in various challenges to sign restrictions from time to time. Some of them have involved permit fees,” he added.

Restrictions that relate to signs on private property can raise free speech issues.

NAR in 2002 backed the Long Island Board of Realtors in legal proceedings against the Village of Massapequa Park in New York’s Long Island. In that case, the board challenged a village sign ordinance that required signs in residential districts to be placed within three feet of a building line, required that signs be no more than 15 inches square, and restricted signs to be placed on a pole at a height of four feet or less. The court ruled that the village’s ordinance did not violate the First Amendment.

NAR also participated in legal proceedings related to a sign ordinance in the village of Pinehurst, N.C., Holmen said. In that instance, the town limited the size of real estate signs to the size of a sheet of typing paper. The ordinance also stated that signs must have green lettering on a white background, and that no corporate logos could be displayed. In that case, the courts ruled in favor of the local association, which argued that the ordinance violated free speech and equal protection laws.

The national association also pursued a separate legal challenge against a second real estate sign ordinance measure in Pinehurst that set the maximum sign size at 12-by-18 inches, still less than the standard 24-by-36 inch signs.

Sign restrictions that relate to aesthetics and safety generally are considered by the courts to be legal, Holmen noted, while outright prohibitions on signs are considered illegal. When signage fees are collected, those fees generally are supposed to be used for a similar purpose, such as the operation of the sign fee program, according to Holmen.

“(Local governments) can’t simply raise the fee for making revenue for the community,” he said.

Send tips or feedback to glenn@inman.com; (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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