WESTFIELD — In the wake of one of the most divisive election cycles in recent memory, one family wanted to do what they thought was their small part to bring people together.

Their efforts have becoming a rallying point for the community — and a possible source for legal trouble.

Valerie Latona said it started in August or September when her family put up a simple sign on their property fence that said "Love Trumps Hate."

"When it came time for the family to figure out what are we going to do to promote what we feel about the election, we didn't want to put up a sign for a candidate," she said.

Since that time, the family has seen several signs vandalized or stolen, and received a warning from the municipality about a potential ordinance violation.

Latona said they have developed new signs that have been wired to their fence to keep them from being taken. Meanwhile, other people have been adding their own hearts and messages to the wall.

Even though the election has long since passed, Latona said the message of the wall has become even more important. She said as Valentine's Day approached, they decided to make it a "wall of love," especially in light of President Donald Trump's calls to build a wall on the Mexican border.

"We don't want to build a wall that keeps people out, we want to build a wall that unites our community," she said.

She has encouraged people to post their own hearts and quotes on the wall.

"One kid wrote 'love is my dog.'" Other people have quoted famous people like Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa. It's all very respectful and it's all about love," she said. "One of the quotes up on the wall says love is not partisan, and that's true."

She said she has been amazed by the responses they have gotten. As the signs have gotten more involved, she said people have left notes in their mailbox, flowers, and even bottles of wine.

"We were like, 'wow, people are really responding to this.'"

Unfortunately, it has not been all flowers and wine. A replacement "Love Trumps Hate" sign was sprayed with black paint and shot with a barrage of Airsoft pellets.

The day of the inauguration, she said a man drove up to the sign and posted a sign of his own, which said the wall was "pathetic and ridiculous" and that people should respect the president.

Latona said they have been in contact with the police, and said at one point an officer asked if they would be better to not post a sign at all.

"We said that's not a lesson we want to teach our kids," she said. "That's not the lesson we want to say to our community that if you vandalize and steal our sign we're not going to do anything about it."

One of the most formidable challenges came from the Town of Westfield. Latona said they got a call last week from the Zoning Department saying they had to take down the sign because it was in violation of ordinances prohibiting signage and words.

Latona said when she asked Zoning Official why residents were allowed to have signs for the holidays or to support local organizations or life events, she said she was told that exceptions were made.

"I respect the laws, and I respect ordinances, but here's the problem, you can't selectively enforce ordinances," she said. "I don't have any problem with people showing their pride and talking about their values and whatever, but you can't enforce us and not everyone else."

When she was informed that a violation letter would be sent out if the sign was not removed, Latona said she would not remove the sign because she felt the overall message was important.

"It's an important value, which I think needs to be sured up at a time like this in our country." She said this has also helped to garner more support from the community as well.

Westfield Zoning Official Kathleen Neville said the town received complaints about the sign, which was why the matter was looked into further, but said no violation notice had been issued. When asked if a violation could be issued in the future, she said the matter was being looked into.

This is not the first time signage has caused issues in a New Jersey municipality. In March, a West Long Branch man was issued a ticket by the municipality for flying a Donald Trump flag. The ticket was eventually dismissed after the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union got involved.

In that case, the violation was issued because the flag was flown more than 30 days before an election. ACLU lawyers argued that people should be able to express their beliefs no matter how close it is to an election.

Latona says the sign was not meant to be anti-Trump.

"The word 'trump' is a verb that existed long before Trump even existed," she said. "It's not against Trump, it's against what's happening in our country with the divisiveness, and the hate, and all the things that are coming out that are unacceptable."

Latona said it has never been a matter of politics for her, and that as an independent she has voted for both Democrats and Republicans.

"No matter who I voted for I'm not really happy with what's happening in our government right now," she said.

And while Westfield is a predominantly Republican town, she said she does not want that to get in the way of what the message.

"We need to rebuild the sense of community no matter what party people are a part of."

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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com


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