May 25, 2022 | Main Spotlight: Sign Regulation | By: Ed McMahon,
Drive out to the edge of town. Stop at the city limits and take a moment to survey the scene. Now head downtown. Look at the streetscape along the way. What do you see? Is the scene pleasing? Does it make a good first impression, or is the streetscape ugly and cluttered?
Our communities are ever evolving as we build new buildings, improve facades, plant trees, introduce sidewalk dining or paint outdoor murals – but one thing that remains constant across streetscapes of past and present is signage. Sign control – or the lack of sign control can have a significant impact on your community’s appearance and economic competitiveness.
Sign regulation is one of the most powerful actions a community can take to make an immediate, visible change in its physical environment. Properly drafted and enforced sign controls can reinforce the distinctive design quality of the entire community. The image of a community is fundamentally important to its economic vitality and the signs along a community’s streets can greatly affect the image of a place. Is the town ordinary or special? Ugly or beautiful? Classy or trashy? Tacky or quaint?
We need signs. We can’t get along without them. They give us direction and necessary information. As a planned feature, a business sign can be colorful, decorative, even distinguished. So why talk about the sign problem? The answer is obvious: Too often signs are oversized, poorly planned, badly located, inappropriately lit and altogether to numerous. The debate around signage is not new. The American Planning Association has noted
that “perhaps no environmental or land use issue evoked more discussion or debate in the 1950’s and 1960’s than did aesthetics and sign control.” That early period kicked off efforts to regulate signs across the country, but the issue is still relevant today.
In many towns sign clutter dominates the landscape, overshadowing buildings and trees, eroding community character, ruining scenic views, degrading historic ambiance and blighting entire neighborhoods. Some communities allow signs in such profusion that drivers must scan a confusing smorgasbord of clutter to find what they are looking for. Other, more successful communities control the size, height, number, and materials of signs. The result is a more pleasing, inviting streetscape that beckons consumers instead of confusing them.
Sign clutter is ugly, costly, and ineffective. When there is an overabundance of competing signs, the message of each is lost. One businessperson explained it this way: “When everyone shouts, no one can be heard, when all speak softly every voice becomes distinct.”
A good sign code is pro-business because an attractive business district will always attract more customers than an ugly one. Moreover, when signs are controlled, merchants do a better job of selling at less cost. Indeed, studies on visual perception
have shown that when the size and number of signs are reduced, the viewer sees more not less. Lindsey Dotson at the Charlevoix, Michigan Main Street, DDA praised their sign control program, saying, “It has led to a universally pleasing streetscape that still allows a business to speak to different audiences (a car passing by, a pedestrian strolling down the block, a window shopper) in an effective yet not cluttered fashion.”
Sign control is especially important to communities that seek to attract tourists. Why? Because the more one town comes to look like every other town, the less reason there is to visit. On the other hand, the more a town does to protect and enhance its unique assets, the more tourists it is likely to attract. Tourism is about visiting places that are different, unusual, and unique. Homogenization and over-commercialization turn tourists off. If everyplace was just like everyplace else, there would be little reason to travel anyplace.
In this article I will outline key legal, political and practical aspects of on-premise sign regulation. See the sidebar for more information about on-premise versus off-premise signs.
Sign regulation raises several legal issues. These issues do not prevent effective regulation of outdoor signs. However, sign codes must be carefully drafted to avoid legal challenges. Signs codes should always be “content-neutral”, and like any regulation based on the police power of local government, sign codes must advance a public interest related to the preservation of the public’s health, safety, or welfare.
Courts routinely uphold sign codes under two separate aspects of police power. First, courts uphold sign ordinances as traffic safety measures, reasoning that signs can distract drivers. Second, many court decisions, particularly in recent years have upheld the power of a community to maintain or improve its appearance through aesthetic regulations that are related to the general welfare.
4. Flags, Pennants and Banners
Wall signs are attached to the wall of a building. The design of the building usually dictates the best location for a wall sign. Such signs should be limited in proportion to the size of the building and not exceed a certain maximum size. For example, a typical sign ordinance might allow wall signs up to 150 square feet or 15 percent of the frontal area, whichever is smaller. Wall signs should also not obscure windows or other key architectural details.
In addition to wall signs, some ordinances allow one hanging or projecting sign mounted at a right angle to the building. In general, projecting signs should be limited in size, and the ordinance should require that the sign be constructed of materials appropriate to the building and its setting.3. Freestanding Signs
Freestanding signs are signs held above the ground by a pole or other structure and not attached to a building. There are two types of freestanding signs: pole signs and ground signs. Their principal use is for business identification outside of the downtown commercial core.
Pole signs are elevated above the ground by a pole or other structure. In some commercial areas, overly tall pole signs proliferate creating a unattractive, cluttered appearance. Effective sign ordinances typically limit a business to one freestanding sign with a maximum height of 12 to 15 feet. Signs much taller than this are difficult to see through an automobile windshield. Reducing sign height also saves merchants money and makes it easier for signs to do the job they were meant to do.
In some communities, businesses engage in a destructive competition to see who can build the biggest, tallest, most attention getting signs. Ironically in such a competition both the businesses and the community lose. When there is an overabundance of competing signs, the message of each is lost. What’s more, the community becomes over-commercialized and homogenized turning it into “Anywhere USA”.
As a result, a growing number of cities are prohibiting pole signs, allowing only ground mounted signs, also known as monument signs. Ground signs as the name implies are low to the ground. They are typically used by vacation resorts, planned communities and other cities that seek a distinctive identity. Hilton Head, South Carolina
, Reston, Virginia
, Sedona, Arizona
, Columbia, Maryland
, Williamsburg, Virginia
, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
and The Woodlands, Texas
are all examples of communities that prohibit pole signs in favor of monument style signs.
Many cities have ordinances that prohibit pennants, banners, balloons, and inflatables because of their distracting nature. Regulating flags and banners, however presents problems that require special attention. It is almost certainly unconstitutional to prohibit the display of the US or other official flags. Yet everyone is familiar with the car dealers and other merchants who display enormous American flags, far larger than any permitted sign. To address this problem, communities can limit the height of flagpoles and the size of flags. In addition, communities can regulate all non-official flags – the McDonald’s flag for example – as signs subject to normal size and height limitations.
Official banners in a downtown can add color and interest to the streetscape. So how can a city ban commercial banners that say, “Sale Here” or “Open Today” and still allow decorative banners for special events or seasonal decorations? The answer is simple: prohibit banners except as “temporary signs on public property (e.g. street lights) to promote events of general civic interest, subject to a special permitting process.”5. Historic Signs
Cities in their efforts to clean up unsightly commercial clutter, sometimes throw out the good with the bad. Old painted wall signs, barber poles, neon, porcelain, and other signs of outstanding craftsmanship or design frequently run afoul of local ordinances designed to clean-up sign clutter or foster a distinctive design image.
Unlike homogenized, plastic backlit signs so prevalent today, unique, hand-crafted signs from the past are often worth saving. Peter Philips of the Society for Commercial Archeology describes old historic signs as “examples of a dying art,” noting that “that they provide local color, historic character, individuality, a sense of place, and clues to a building’s history.”
But how do you draft a sign code that cleans up the plastic clutter and at the same time, recognizes the value of historic signs? First, survey historic signs. Develop an inventory of any signs that may be worth saving because of age, historical association, exemplary design, or aesthetic quality. This list can then be used for individual designation and protection.
Some cities permit signs to be designated as historic by the city council or planning commission if the signs meet certain criteria. In Culver City, California
for example, a sign can be designated if it is:
• At least 50 years old
• An appurtenant graphic (i.e., it is an on-premise sign, not a billboard)
• Unique and enhances the cultural, historical, or aesthetic quality of the city
• Structurally safe
Once designated, historic signs are deemed in compliance with the sign ordinance regardless of their size, materials, colors, or location.
6. Illuminated Signs
Illuminated signs include all signs with lighting, electronic signs, neon signs and other signs that produce their own light. They pose special problems, most notably light pollution and driver distraction and require special attention and regulation. A lighting ordinance can make a major difference. For example, light fixtures used to illuminate outdoor signs should be mounted on the top not the bottom of the sign structure and aimed downward, not upward. Not only does this reduce light pollution, but it results in more effective illumination of the sign. Lighting fixtures should also be shielded. This keeps the light from intruding on other uses and helps prevent glare, a safety hazard for oncoming vehicles. In certain places, it may also make sense to require that the lighting be turned off at a certain hour, both to save energy and preserve harmony near homes, hospitals, or other sensitive locations.
In recent years, technology has allowed for the creation of electronic and/or digital signs, which can rapidly change messages or images. This type of sign can be particularly annoying and hazardous. They are also very energy intensive. Some communities have chosen to prohibit electronic signs, while others allow them subject to typical restrictions on size, height, movement, etc. As with good sign controls, good lighting standards can help businesses communicate more effectively, while also preserving community character. Education is a key to showing businesses that good lighting standards are in fact, good for business.
Dealing With Non-Conforming Signs
One key issue in sign regulation involves the removal of non-conforming signs. When a community passes a new sign code, many older signs that don’t conform to the new law will remain. These are called “nonconforming signs”. How do you deal with them? There are several techniques for removing non-conforming, on-premise signs. The most common method is to set a specific date by which they must be removed. This process is known as amortization. Businesses are given a designated period (usually between one and five years) during which time, the non-conforming sign may remain. When the time is up, the old sign must be removed or modified to comply with the code. With an amortization provision in place, the owner has time to depreciate the cost of the sign and the municipality does not have to pay for the value of the sign after the amortization period has run out.
Another method for eliminating nonconforming signs is for the ordinance to require that whenever an old sign is removed or modified, it can only be replaced with one that conforms to the current sign regulations. Additional techniques that communities can use to facilitate the removal of non-conforming signs include the following: