LAFAYETTE -- Faced with a possible legal challenge over free speech, Lafayette city leaders are looking at backing away from a limit on the number of signs allowed on residential property.

The move comes after the American Civil Liberties Union wrote the city a three-page letter, challenging a sign limit on the grounds that it violates free speech.

In addition, the council is considering no longer having a special category for historic signs and memorial markers.

These combined actions could prevent someone from putting up hundreds of signs in a yard or another hillside of crosses.

The council was poised to take action Monday night but continued the issue to its next meeting, May 29.

Council members are struggling with what the total square footage allowed should be.

The City Council started looking at revising its sign policy in March to close recently-identified loopholes in a law that is intended to eliminate clutter and traffic distractions. The existing sign law sets no limit on the number of signs on residential property and allows different sizes for different signs, with a Realtor's sign being as large as 32 square feet.

At first, officials proposed revising that policy by allowing no more than four signs, with a maximum combined area of 30 square feet.

Under the new proposal being considered, signs would be limited to 64 square feet or 80 square feet combined for anything up for 90 days or less. The council is debating on the two sizes based on what the courts have upheld. Signs up for longer are deemed permanent and would be restricted to 32 square feet combined.

Such a rule would have made it impossible for someone to post a dozen signs in their yard or to create a second display of thousands of crosses. It would have applied to new signs, meaning the more than 3,000 crosses that blanket a privately-owned hillside on Deer Hill Road would not be affected.

But the ACLU objected to a sign limit. City Attorney Mala Subramanian said some cities have been challenged in court on their sign laws but the courts have not clearly defined how many signs is appropriate and what the total square footage should be.

Meanwhile, the crosses, along with some Jewish stars of David and Islamic crescents, continue to be the subject of debate about how best to honor U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

The display is slated to remain until the Iraq War is over, organizers said.

Two separate groups have petitioned the city to order the crosses to come down, one on the grounds that they pose a wildfire hazard and the other because the crosses don't resemble national cemetery displays that they say appropriately honor the dead.

Officials have determined the display complies with city law after organizers shrunk the large sign at the crosses to 32 square feet. The sign states the number of fallen troops. Officials said they cannot legally regulate a sign's content so they allowed the one at the crosses to be the same size as a Realtor's sign.

Cross organizers have been trimming weeds on the hillside. No fire hazard exists as long as the weeds are less than 3 inches tall, Contra Costa fire officials have said.

Reach Katherine Tam at 925-943-8163 or ktam@cctimes.com.