BETHLEHEM — Randy Nearing says he feels like he’s lost the rights to his motel property.
When tenant Ryan Collins hung up a large sign with the message “F--- Biden” outside his rental unit at the Pinewood Motel at 1214 Main St., Nearing began getting complaints from angry people who found the language offensive. He wants the town to enforce its ordinance forbidding obscene signs.
Town officials are now mired in the middle of a free speech vs. property rights debate.
“The select board is certainly aware that a significant number of folks in town are very upset about the language in the sign and a number of them have actually said that if it said ‘F--- Trump’ they would be equally upset. It’s just a crude, unacceptable way to express oneself,” said Selectman Chris Jensen.
The town is awaiting more legal advice on enforcing a zoning regulation and hopes to have more information by the July 26 selectmen’s meeting, he said Monday.
Collins, who is a long-term renter at the motel, said the controversy began when he put two flags out in time for the Fourth of July. Collins said one read, “F--- Biden. F--- you for voting for him.” He also hung a pro-Trump flag with a “Save America” message.
The first time he saw the Biden flag hanging outside the apartment, Nearing said, he removed it and threw it away.
“He (Collins) accused me of damaging his property and everything else, but it was right out by the road. I took it down and I called the cops,” he said.
A police officer responded and told Nearing that he had to return the flag. Nearing said he pulled the flag from a dumpster and handed it over to the officer, who gave it back to Collins. The flag was immediately hung back up while the officer was still on the property, Nearing said.
“I think the police ought to come right down here, stand by me and say, ‘Take that down. It’s not on your property and you can’t do that,’” Nearing said. “This is horrible. In 31 years (of owning the property) I’ve never seen anything like this. It makes me want to have a heart attack. I’m 75 years old and I can’t take this.”
He said Collins has violated his rental agreement by placing the signs and a tent on the lawn outside his unit. Nearing said town officials should enforce the sign ordinance.
The ordinance prohibits the display of signs that are “disorderly, unsightly, noxious, offensive, detrimental to the public or to the owners or occupants of adjacent property, or prejudicial to the general welfare of the community.”
Collins said the anti-Biden sign was recently set afire, as was his pro-Trump sign.
He hung up a new sign with the same message, adding a large blow-up doll with a sexually explicit message involving President Biden and a new “Keep America Great” Trump banner.
“They’re not going to shut me up because they don’t like the F-word,” Collins said.
Collins has received support and hateful messages.
“People driving by will stop, take pictures and tell me they like it. I’ve got all kinds of support. Then some people drive by and call me white trash. I got fan mail the other day,” Collins said.
People think he’s responsible for the sign, Nearing said.
“Die motherf---er!” one male driver yelled as Nearing was being interviewed on Monday.
“I get this all the time,” Nearing said, adding he is considering evicting Collins.
The police department has been flooded with complaints about the sign, but Police Chief Alan DeMoranville said it’s a civil matter. He called the sign “protected constitutional speech.”
“We will not be getting involved in that. There may be some sort of landlord-tenant things that can be done, but that’s outside our realm,” he said.
Even if the sign violates a town zoning ordinance, DeMoranville said it would be an issue for the select board to address.
He said police also aren’t investigating the burning of the flags because Collins never reported the incident to them.