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A sign ordinance can help a municipality reduce signage visual clutter and end business “sign wars.” It also can help protect the existing character of a community, establish, or enhance community identity.
Sign ordinances can be adopted or amended by municipalities to address signage throughout their municipality. The discussion below details why sign ordinances could be enacted and the legal issues and considerations involved. The first step that municipalities should undertake is to determine the purpose and vision for what type of sign ordinance they need. The following sections describe typical sign ordinance content, the adoption process and implementation, and resources for further research.
Municipalities interested in enacting a sign ordinance or amending their current signage regulations should consider the benefits and drawbacks of new or increased regulations. While a properly crafted sign ordinance can help a municipality, an improperly crafted ordinance can create problems, administrative headaches, and legal concerns.
Sign ordinances give municipalities a say on the type, location, and size of signage in their municipalities as well as address how signs should be erected (often through a permitting process). Enacting sign legislation provides procedures and policies to ensure that signage throughout the municipality is more consistent with the vision for the community. Signage regulations can help business owners create a sense of place for a commercial area and allow their customers to find their businesses more easily. Having signage criteria can also help a municipality reflect or enhance their civic identity. For example, a municipality might want to reinforce their historic main street character by having signage that is in the scale and style of the corridor’s architecture. Regulations about the number of signs, sign height, and sign size, as well as location can help avoid visual clutter (with many large on-premise signs) and prevent businesses from competing for attention of pedestrians and motorists.
Adding more regulations to a municipality’s code and regulating signage involves additional administrative work including administering sign permit applications and code enforcement of the regulations. Municipalities will need to have a sign application process, adequate staff to review applications, and the necessary code enforcement staff to enforce and issue violations to ensure adequate implementation of the sign ordinance.
If improperly developed, sign ordinances may need significant revisions that can lead to added costs for sign ordinance development. In addition, adding additional regulations could potentially draw legal challenges (making review by legal counsel especially important).
Sign ordinances need to be content-neutral to minimize potential for creating issues with the First Amendment. Furthermore, a sign ordinance should promote and advance a “legitimate governmental interest” related to public health, safety, morals, and general welfare.
Enacting sign legislation requires careful legal review and legal counsel. Some applicable case law can be found in the Conservation Tools Library. However, there are legal issues and considerations beyond what is discussed herein. Since the courts often deal with sign law disputes, case law should be reviewed during the creation of any sign ordinance and the appropriate legal review should be conducted prior to adoption to ensure that proposed regulations are consistent with current law.
Sign ordinances can be adopted as either a stand-alone ordinance within a municipality’s general code or within the zoning ordinance section of the code based upon governing body preference, current code organization, elected official comfort level, and recommendation of legal counsel.
Freedom of speech is an important legal consideration when regulating signage. Sign regulations can regulate the time, place, and manner of signage but not the content. United States courts (including the United States Supreme Court) have ruled that regulating a sign’s content, or message, is unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment’s free speech protections. In other words, regulating the type, size, height, location, illumination, and duration of time a sign is displayed (or lighted for example) are typically an appropriate use of regulations.
Billboards are sometimes known as off-premise signs or outdoor advertising signs. Off-premise signs are signs whose content relate to activities not found on the parcel where the sign is located. Some states prohibit new billboard construction; Pennsylvania does not.
Some municipalities regulate off-premise signs and some do not. Some regulate them in the same ordinance as on-premise signs and some in separate ordinances. The choice of location depends on the particular circumstances and preferences of the municipality and its legal counsel.
Digital billboards are becoming more common throughout the United States and addressing the conversion of billboards to digital billboards is another potential issue to address in a sign ordinance.
In addition to any municipal regulations, billboards along interstate highways are subject to the federal Highway Beautification Act. According to Better Models for Development in Pennsylvania, the State has thousands of nonconforming billboards located along federal highways. A nonconforming billboard is an existing billboard that does not meet a municipality’s current signage regulations.
Construction of new billboards can be prohibited by municipalities in certain areas. This was done for the I-476 (Blue Route) in Chester and Montgomery Counties, the Vine Street Expressway and Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, and the Exton Bypass in Chester County. An additional regulatory option for billboards is to only allow new billboards to be constructed when a nonconforming billboard of the same or greater size is removed. This option would require a baseline understanding of how many nonconforming billboards exist at the time of adoption of any new regulations. Both regulatory options require specific consideration by legal counsel.
Philadelphia, as an example, has utilized both of the above regulatory options (prohibiting construction of new billboards in certain areas and allowing construction of new billboards when nonconforming billboards are removed). The City’s sign regulations are found within its zoning ordinance (note: sign regulations and outdoor advertising regulations are separate sections within the zoning ordinance). In Radnor Township in Delaware County, billboards are regulated as a part of the sign ordinance within the zoning ordinance. Radnor’s billboard provisions prohibit digital billboards and have specific requirements for the location, number, size, and height of billboards.
Developing or amending a sign ordinance involves taking stock of current signage within the municipality and considering what signage is desirable. This brainstorming process, along with public meetings and input, as well as review of other signage ordinances and case law, is important to help your municipality decide what sections are necessary for the sign code. Below are a few questions that municipalities can discuss when determining what should be a part of their sign ordinances:
Consider land use and the appropriate number of signs when deciding on signage regulations. At left: a commercial corridor with many on-premise signs and sign clutter. At right: A traditional business district with smaller signage in keeping with the style and architecture of the buildings. Picture source: Planning4Places, LLC
Municipalities should tailor sign ordinances based on municipal needs. Typical sign ordinance content includes the following sections:
The intent or purpose section of a sign ordinance identifies the governmental purpose of the ordinance.
Key terms used throughout the ordinance should be identified in the definitions section. Concise, specific definitions help with administration and enforcement of sign ordinances and contribute to the ease of use of the sign ordinance for applicants. Care should be given to considering how definitions impact other sections of the sign ordinance and whether the definitions are consistent with or potentially impact and conflict with any other section of the entire zoning ordinance.
The general regulations section typically addresses how sign area and sign height are calculated, where signs can be located (setbacks), and what type of sign illumination is allowed, among other regulations that apply to all signs. Illumination standards should correlate with any lighting ordinance standards if applicable. General regulations sections of sign ordinances also sometimes include discussions of signage construction, materials, and sign structure.
Defining sign types helps a municipality clarify requirements and ensures that everyone understands the specific requirements for each type of sign. The following are common sign types found in sign ordinances:
An awning sign is a sign that is painted or printed on the surface of an awning or canopy made of canvas, fabric, metal, or similar material which is attached to, and projects from, a building or structure.
A billboard or outdoor advertising sign is an off-premise sign which directs attention to a business, activity, or event which is conducted elsewhere than on the parcel where the sign is located.
A directional sign or informational sign is a sign which conveys instructions for pedestrians and/or motorists such as entrance and exits of a parking lot, walking directions, or directions to particular sites (i.e. a city hall, library, etc.).
A freestanding sign is a sign which is supported by poles or posts. Freestanding signs are also sometimes called ground signs.
A monument sign is a sign which is attached to a wall or structure that forms a structural framework for the sign display. A monument sign is sometimes also classified as a type of freestanding sign.
A marquee sign is attached to a marquee on a theater or movie theater.
A sign which directs attention to an establishment, service, product, or activity not conducted on the same lot.
A sign which directs attention to an establishment, service, product, or activity found on the same lot where the sign is located.
A projecting sign is mounted perpendicularly to a wall.
A sign erected upon or above a roof or parapet wall of a building which is wholly or partly supported by that building.
Any vehicle and/or trailer to which a sign is affixed in such a manner that the carrying of the sign is no longer incidental to the vehicle’s purpose but becomes the primary purpose of the vehicle.
A wall sign or parallel wall sign is a sign mounted parallel to a wall.
A window sign is a sign which is mounted or painted on the inside of a window.
Temporary signs advertise municipal or civic projects, construction projects, real estate, a commercial grand opening, political candidates, or other special events on a temporary basis. Political signs and portable signs (e.g. sandwich board signs) are examples of temporary signs. These signs sometimes have special considerations that allow them to be located outside the framework of the general regulations. See Permits.
Sign ordinances typically have a permit section which addresses which signs require permits, which signs do not, and the procedures for permit applications. The advantage of the permitting process is that it allows a municipality a chance to review sign applications prior to installation to ensure they conform to the regulations. Any permitting process will require the creation of a sign application as well as municipal staff to review and approve the application. Utilizing a specific, well-managed permitting process not only provides municipalities with a recordkeeping system that allows for easier code enforcement of regulations but ensures that everyone encounters a similar process and knows what to expect when erecting signage in the municipality.
Sign ordinances can designate which signs need to follow permit procedures. These signs are usually permanent signs that have additional requirements beyond what is described in the general regulations. Monument, freestanding, awning, or projecting signs typically require permits.
Sign ordinances can also designate the type of signs that do not need permits. Typically these types of signs are incidental in nature or are signs which are temporary in nature. Examples of common signs exempt from permits are: a menu sign for a restaurant, street address signs, political signs, and real estate signs.
For ordinances that require sign permits, this section specifies what is required for approval. Typical procedures within this section relate to application information requirements such as information on the sign applicant, the number of copies of plans, and required information on the sign (i.e. dimensions, sign area, sign location, sign height, and other details).
Many ordinances also include a prohibited sign section. Usually prohibited signs include signs which create visual or traffic hazards to the general public and signs which are not permitted within the municipality. Signs on utility poles are commonly prohibited in sign ordinances as they are usually erected without the property owner’s permission.
This section of the sign ordinance discusses signs that legally existed at the time of adoption of the new regulations but will not conform to the municipal code with enactment of the new regulations and requirements. When a sign becomes nonconforming, this does not mean that a sign must be removed – this is an allowed “situation” provided for by the nonconforming signs section. The same general aspects below relate to billboards that have become nonconforming.
Nonconforming sign ordinance sections normally address when such signs can be repaired and to what extent signs can remain nonconforming when a sign needs minor repairs or repainting. Nonconforming sign ordinance sections indicate when a sign shall be removed (usually when signs require significant structural renovation or when a business closes) and the length of time permitted to remove such a sign.
Sign ordinances can address the specific height of a sign, its size, its location (or setback), and whether the sign is externally or internally illuminated. The specific details of the requirements depend on each municipality’s level of interest in and desired detail of signage characteristics. Examples of typical details include the height clearance of a projecting sign to the sidewalk, the number of signs permitted along the street frontage, and the size of a window sign in terms of the percentage of the window area.
A severability clause is one of the most important aspects of any ordinance or regulation including a sign ordinance. The severability clause states that if any provisions within the ordinance are found to be illegal, invalid, or unconstitutional by any court, that it will not affect any remaining sections of the ordinance. Given the frequency of legal challenges to sign ordinance provisions, this section is particularly necessary.
For nearly all Pennsylvania municipalities (those that are governed by the Municipalities Planning Code (MPC)), the procedure for adopting a sign ordinance as a part of the zoning code is as follows: review by the planning agency, recommendation to the governing body for adoption, review by the county planning agency (if applicable), followed by the public notice period and public hearing process following the requirements of the MPC. The procedure for adopting a stand-alone sign ordinance needs to follow the applicable adoption procedures based on the municipality’s governing structure (First Class Township Code, Second Class Township Code, etc.).
Following adoption of a sign ordinance, municipalities should periodically review signage applications to ensure that the intent of the sign ordinance is being achieved. Many municipalities find that they have to make some adjustments within the first year of adopting or amending a sign ordinance, particularly if variances from the sign ordinance are commonly being sought by applicants from the zoning hearing board. Additionally, codification may be required if the municipality’s ordinance is already codified.
In order to ensure proper implementation of a sign ordinance, a municipality needs to enforce their regulations by ensuring they have adequate code enforcement staff and resources. Enforcement of the regulations and issuing violations when regulations are not followed guarantees that any new regulations are properly followed and implemented.
Katherine Ember, AICP, Principal and Owner of Planning4Places, LLC is the author of this document.
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