The temporary removal of signs protesting the planned Maine Department of Transportation project in downtown Wiscasset has frustrated residents who say their right to free speech was violated.

The town removed the signs, which contain phrases like “Save Our Storefront Parking,” from multiple residences on Feb. 26 with little advanced warning. According to James Kochan, one of the affected residents, he only knew of the sign removal when he looked outside to see town workers removing them from his property.

“The Town Manager was essentially out with the pro-MDOT crowd, out to squelch free speech,” he said.

When the incident occurred, Kochan said he confronted the workers and received a small pamphlet explaining the reasoning behind their removal, which cited parts of the town’s signage ordinance. However, after reviewing the ordinance, he said he hasn’t come across any standards that would constitute their removal.

“They were trying to call our signs off-premises signs,” he said.

Wiscasset’s ordinances specifically refers to off-premises signs as directing attention to “a business, industry, profession or service not conducted on the premises where the sign is displayed.”

Kochan, who also owns a business on Main Street, argues that the ongoing debate over the MDOT plan coupled with the upcoming April referendum to decide whether the town will continue pursuing a lawsuit against the project makes his sign a political sign. The town’s sign ordinance specifically says that political signs, provided they conform to state requirements, are exempt from most standards.

In addition to the signs being exempt, Kochan also said he never received any notice that his signs were going to be removed. The town’s code states the “Sign Control Officer shall send by certified mail a notice to the owner of record of the property and/or business of the violation and require correction or removal within fourteen (14) days of the notice mailing.”

Stan Waltz, the town’s code enforcement officer, said he had received complaints about the signs as early as December. After reviewing the ordinance, he sought the advice of both the town’s attorney and attorneys with the Maine Municipal Association to determine what to do.

Initially, he said, his plan was to wait it out and not touch the signs. But continuing complaints made him address it. State regulations require all political signs within 20 feet of a right-of-way only be in place six weeks before an election or one week after, which led him to pull up all signs within that distance of the right-of-way. He added that, when they pulled up the signs, they made sure not to damage them so that the owners could still use them.

“Then I found out, through MMA, that a political sign can be on private property for any length of time, and it can be a lot bigger than the ones that are there,” said Waltz. “They can actually be up to 50 square feet.”

The owners of the signs can continue to display them, as long as they’re far enough away from the curb and are spaced out by 50 feet.

Town Manager Marian Anderson said that the removal had no malicious intent, and that she was not the one who ‘ordered their removal.’

“The Code Enforcement Officer’s job is to enforce the ordinance,” she said. “My understanding is that there were some that were pulled in error, but it wasn’t intentional, and all signs were returned.”

Kochan said the issue is of great importance to his and other businesses downtown, and the signs are an important way to let visitors to the town know about it.

“As soon as I know that it’s (MDOT project) happening for sure, I’ll be shutting my business down and going elsewhere,” he said. “If we have no street parking, all of our businesses will close.”

Ann Scanlan, director of the Sylvan Gallery in downtown Wiscasset, has two of the signs in her window. She said the signs are calling attention to an issue that many business owners feel could make the difference between staying open or not.

“They are telling the truth of what is happening in Wiscasset,” she said. “I think there’s nothing wrong with the signs.”

Select Board member Bob Blagden said he’s heard several complaints from residents who had their signs removed. He declined to comment on the specific issue until he learned more about the specifics behind the incident, and the sign ordinance.

Benjamin Rines, another board member, said he is now a “proud owner” of one of the signs after the incident.

“It’s total overkill,” he said of the removal. “Those signs have been up for a couple of months, and I have never heard a single complaint or comment about them.”

He said that he had no knowledge the signs were going to be removed, and is against the idea of removing them at all, let alone the way they were removed without any further notice. “There were much much better ways to handle it, I don’t know how to describe it.”

Now that the sign owners have them back, Waltz said they’re free to hang them inside their windows or on their property as long as they make sure to follow state regulations and keep them far enough from the roadway. He added that the incident has clarified the issue for the town and anyone complaining about the signs.