Community's sign fight just won't stop


Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Jennifer Sorentrue
Posted on Monday, November 15, 2004


Beyond the manicured entrance, past the large metal gates, is the sign at the center of a decade-long feud brewing in Frenchmen's Landing.

A stop sign.

There are four of them. Four sets of four-way stops placed a block apart on the main road of the private community on the eastern edge of Palm Beach Gardens.

A few neighborhood residents have been fighting the homeowners association to get them removed for so long now that the issue reached former Gov. Lawton Chiles, the state attorney's office, the Federal Highway Administration and even piqued the interest of the National Motorist Association.

Resident Norman Ingram started the fight in 1993, after he said a friend told him the signs were illegal. Since then, he's relentlessly fought to have them removed, claiming the homeowners association could be responsible if someone is injured at one of the intersections.

He's hired a lawyer and a traffic engineer to prove they signs don't belong on Frenchman's Passage, the road used by all residents to get in and out of the private community.

"I didn't start out to build a case I started out because of the liability exposure," Ingram said. "As I went along, I found out how dangerous these signs are."

Ingram and resident Paul Pennampede, a former member of the association's board, argue that the stop signs were posted without a study to determine whether the road's traffic conditions warranted them. Several drivers who have been cited for not stopping at the signs, including Ingram, have had their tickets tossed out in traffic court, they point out.

A traffic hearing officer in January dismissed Ingram's ticket, ruling that the "criteria for installing stop signs" had not been met.

The signs, they say, have created chaos on the road because some motorists drive straight through them without stopping or speed around them on side streets.

Adding to the confusion, property manager Tom Rice said that, because of the court rulings, Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies have stopped ticketing residents who ignore the signs.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Diane Carhart denied Rice's claim. She said that deputies enforce the stop signs and all other traffic rules. Whether drivers are cited for not stopping, she said, depended on the circumstances of the traffic stop.

Like most gated communities, Frenchmen's Landing has an agreement with the county that allows the homeowners association to hire extra deputies to patrol its streets.

That agreement has been questioned recently by county officials, who say the homeowners group must get an engineer to certify that the stop signs adhere to federal traffic standards. The engineer who approved the signs withdrew his certification this spring, after Ingram challenged it. If the association doesn't find by mid-January another engineer to certify that the stop signs are legally placed, the county commission will be asked to consider terminating its agreement with the neighborhood, county officials said.

Finding that engineer has been tricky, property manager Rice said. That's because most don't want to get entangled in the bitter dispute, although he's confident the board will meet the deadline. "It's been very difficult because of all the nonsense," Rice said. "There has never been a finding that these signs are illegal."

Resident Ingram, however, has piles of papers that he says show they aren't legal. He points to a 1994 violation notice issued by the county's building and zoning department, which ordered the association to remove the signs "immediately" a notice that Rice argues was later rescinded because the county doesn't have jurisdiction on private roads.

As for the engineer, Ingram said he's not the holdup. Instead, he said, the association just can't find one who will say that the signs are legal.

"They've had 10 years to get an engineer," said Ingram, who has offered to have a "disinterested" engineer study the intersections.

If the signs are ever ruled illegal, Rice said, the battle could spread to other private neighborhoods, whose signs might not meet all of the federal standards.

In Frenchmen's Landing, Rice said, about 97 percent of the residents brake for the signs. Ingram claims the opposite, saying 90 percent of people don't stop.

For now, the battle rages on.

"Somewhere down the line, further down the road," Rice said, "there will be a meeting of the minds."



We all know the saying -- even if not necessarily always practiced any more -- of "Innocent Until Proven Guilty"!  In this case we should clearly use a very similar approach:  "Illegal Until Proven Legal"!  That means the parties that insist on these signs should be the ones who have to prove their legality, not vice versa.


It is very obvious that courts haven't acknowledged the legality of these signs. So far, all violation tickets issued by the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office have been dismissed by Traffic Court, if challenged.


A ruling by the Country Court In And For Palm Beach County dated May 18, 2004, contains a very important paragraph, explaining the whole reasoning (Quote):

Frenchmen's Landing is a non-governmental entity. The department of Transportation specifically addresses non-governmental entities. FDOT's Rule 14-110001 provides that non-governmental entities that maintain roads onto which the general public is invited to travel shall install and maintain  traffic control devices at appropriate locations pursuant to the standards contained in the Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices (the MUTCD). Pursuat to the Rule, any and all violations are to be reported to the office of the state attorney.

FDOT's Rule 14-110.001 is adopted pursuant to Florida Statute Section 316.0747. 316.0747 mandates that it is unlawful for any non-governmental entity to utilize any traffic control device that does not conform to the MUTCD. Violation of the Rule is a misdemeanor. Thus, compliance with the MTUCD is mandatory. (End Quote).

This dispute has already cost the community lots of money.  Wouldn't it be time to stop throwing more good money after bad and post traffic control devices that comply with the legal rules?

The peace in the community alone would definitely be worth it!