Sign-happy homeowner targeted by second city

If God comes through and saves one local woman in her fight against the government, the higher power is going to have to take on two cities, multiple creditors and possibly two Superior Court judges.

Following San Mateo’s lead, Belmont City Attorney Marc Zafferano said the city is drafting up a civil lawsuit against Estrella Benavides for violating the city’s allowed limit of 12 square feet of signage in residential areas with messages scrawled on her 3416 Beresford Ave. Belmont home.

Benavides is embroiled in court proceedings with San Mateo for her city code violations. “San Mateo has tried through administrative efforts to get her to comply,” Zafferano said. “Belmont has decided to not use that process and go directly to filing a lawsuit against her.”

For more than a year, San Mateo has been fighting Benavides to have her remove 73-square feet of signs on the front face, roof and lawn of her Cottage Grove Avenue home in San Mateo. While the signs have concerned residents with their apocalyptic, dramatic messages of biblical judgment and government abuse, the legal concerns are code violations, three in San Mateo, one in Belmont.

In her defense, Benavides says it is a simple freedom-of-speech issue.

“The First Amendment is very clear,” she said. “It does not say you have to write what you want to say in a little tiny space.”

Her neighbors — who have been reading the messages for more than a month — say they think the messages are a cry for help, because the first word on the top of the garage is “Help” and the same word is scrawled on the back of the home.

“The first word she wrote up there is ‘help,’” said Sean Cowgill, who rents the home across the street. “But anytime someone offers it, she doesn’t want it.”

Although her legal troubles in Belmont are only beginning, San Mateo City Attorney Shawn Mason said Benavides is running out of chances in San Mateo. After not responding to a claim from the city on Sept. 12, Benavides lost her legal ability to answer to the city’s lawsuit filed on July 30.

Unless she is granted a chance to respond, the city will go before a Superior Court judge to request a court order demanding that she removeenough of the San Mateo signs to comply with sign ordinances.

If she refuses — which she has vowed to do — she could be held in contempt of court.

Benavides also said at least two of her three homes are facing foreclosure, but believes that a higher power will intervene on her behalf.

jgoldman@examiner.com

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