CHARLESTOWN — For around two weeks, the truck with an illegal banner sat on Harold Goodlett’s property.
“John Neace: Stop destroying our neighborhood,” it read, underneath an even larger address for a website telling the story of the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood.
But it wasn’t until the truck and banner were moved to a prominent location along Charlestown’s Founder’s Day parade route that a property owner received a call from the city, requesting that the sign be removed lest a citation be issued.
The city is calling the timing a coincidence, a sudden realization by the building commissioner that the sign violated the city’s zoning ordinance, brought upon by research on a separate, but similar violation. The Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association doesn’t think that’s the real impetus.
“The reason why they told us to let the sign down is because it goes against what the city is trying to do,” said Josh Craven, the president of the resident group. “The city is trying to develop our neighborhood.”
The Pleasant Ridge Neighborhood Association, represented by a libertarian law firm, Institute for Justice, is currently locked in a lawsuit with the city. Charlestown was fining homeowners, many of them low-wage earners, in the neighborhood as part of a rental inspection program. As violations piled up, some owners sold their homes to John Neace under his company, Neace Ventures LLC, for low prices. Neace is redeveloping Pleasant Ridge with plans to build higher-end housing in place of the ones he currently owns.
Neace was unable to be reached for this story. A Neace Ventures employee in charge of the Pleasant Ridge project, John Hampton, declined to comment. After calling Neace’s office while he was out, the News and Tribune was directed to send an email to another of Neace’s employees, who did not respond by press time.
To publicize their battle, the neighborhood association and the Institute for Justice created dearjohnneace.com around three weeks ago, which features a plea to Neace to stop his efforts. The banner was an effort to direct more eyes to the site, Craven said. Goodlett, who said he was sympathetic to Pleasant Ridge’s situation, allowed the homeowners to hang their banner on his truck and on his property in front of Charlestown High School.
On Wednesday, three days before Charlestown’s Founder’s Day parade, a Pleasant Ridge resident asked if the truck could be parked on a Market Street property across from Family Dollar. The owners agreed. The location was right in front of where musicians and fire trucks would be passing during the parade.
The day after the truck settled in its new spot, Charlestown Building Commissioner Tony Jackson called one of the property owners, Lara Abbott, and told her that the sign wasn’t allowed and asked her to remove it.
The banner does violate Charlestown’s zoning ordinance, which states that vehicle signs parked on public and private property are prohibited if their primary purpose is to display the sign.
Jackson told John Spencer, the media and public relations director for Charlestown, that he hadn’t known about the city’s vehicle sign rule when Goodlett was displaying the Pleasant Ridge banner on his property. It wasn’t until he started researching another vehicle that was being used as a sign that he realized it and asked Abbott to remove the one on her property.
“[Jackson] hadn’t really thought about any of that when it was up on Harold’s property,” Spencer said, although the city official admitted that he could see why Craven got the wrong impression.
Spencer did not identify the other vehicle sign owner with whom the city was working.
Craven still believes that Jackson’s call had something to do with the vehicle’s prominent new location. He feels justified by the truck and banner’s current location, back on Goodlett's property and away from the parade route, since the city has not asked Goodlett to remove it yet.
Spencer said that “at some point,” Jackson would be contacting Goodlett about the violation. Spencer said he doesn’t believe that the ordinance should be applied inconsistently.
Craven welcomes the moment. He plans to move the banner if the city calls Goodlett. If that doesn’t work, the ordinance could be challenged, Craven said.
Charlestown used to have an ordinance saying they could inspect Pleasant Ridge homes, he pointed out. Since the lawsuit, that practice has stopped.