When the Proposed International Zoning Code Threatened the Sign Industry

Code-development authorities unwittingly imperiled the sign industry

The following article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Signs of the Times magazine. An update appears on this website at http://fasi.org/2000/01/11/zone-defense/

By Bill Dundas

When Signs of the Times magazine received an alarming fax from the United States Sign Council’s Executive Director Andrew D. Bertucci at the end of July, it contrasted sharply with the speaker’s normally serene demeanor. Andy was clearly on the warpath. Initially, I suspected this might be a tempest in a teapot. As the story unfolded, however, Bertucci increasingly resembled a sign industry Paul Revere.

While we celebrated the trade’s unparalleled prosperity at the Intl. Sign Assn.’s (ISA) Sign Expo ’97 in Las Vegas last April, a so-called “public hearing” was conducted in Oak Brook, IL, to review a document known as the “International Zoning Code” (IZC). Little did we know that, if adopted as a model by municipalities, this code would cripple the U.S. sign industry.

The Intl. Code Council (ICC) and Building Officials and Code Administrators Intl. (BOCA) neglected to notify anyone connected with the national sign industry of either the public hearing or the Final Action Hearings scheduled for September and October. Bertucci only learned about the IZC through a fortuitous conversation with an engineer.

Citing its dedication to “intelligent community development” and “the benefit of the public welfare,” Chapter 10 of the IZC contains regulations that, cumulatively, terminate America’s tradition of diversity in the regulation of on-premise and out-of-home signage. Among these proposed standards, the following are particularly heinous:

  • Section 1005.2.2: Freestanding signs in commercial zones are limited to a maximum surface area of 40 sq. ft.
  • Section 1006.3.2: Projecting signs cannot exceed 64 sq. ft., and this surface area is subtracted from the total allowable area for flush-mounted signs.
  • Section 1007.1: Lighting for signs is restricted to only two types: internal illumination and external, directed floodlights. All visible lighting sources such as neon and fiber-optic cable are prohibited.
  • Section 1007.3: No roof-mounted signs are permitted, except those that are attached to the building parapet “within the same plane” as the exterior building wall. Additionally, the surface area of a parapet-mounted sign would be subtracted from the total allowable signage area for flush-mounted wall signs.
  • Section 1007.6: Animated electronic signs that blink or flash are prohibited.
  • Section 1008: Portable signs, banners, pennants and private flags are prohibited, except for temporary use.
  • Section 1009.1: Billboards are limited to a maximum, above-grade height of 36 ft. Maximum billboard size is restricted to 300 sq. ft.
  • Section 1009.4: Freestanding signs within 15 ft. of the property line cannot exceed 15 ft. in height. For each 1 ft. that the sign is set back beyond 15 ft., the height can be increased by 2 ft., up to a maximum height of 36 ft. Freestanding signs on abutting properties cannot be closer than 50 ft. apart (unless this deprives a property owner of his right, under the IZC, to have one freestanding sign).
  • Section 1013: Any nonconforming sign that requires alterations in excess of 25% of the sign’s value (as determined by the local building official) must be made to conform to all regulations. Nonconforming billboards must be removed or brought into compliance within six years of receiving official notification from the jurisdiction.

I can’t think of a more appropriate adjective than Bertucci’s characterization of Chapter 10 as “insidious.” The devastating effect that these regulations would have on the sign industry is obvious, but some larger questions are scarcely less troubling. The “uniformity in zoning laws and enforcement” that the IZC promotes is a goal that stands completely opposed to the American tradition of local sovereignty. In my 20 years of dealing with a wide variety of municipal sign codes, this is the first time I’ve seen such a large-scale effort to override local autonomy.

This code’s ICC derivation makes it quite likely that municipalities will adopt it, in toto, with minimal analysis or debate. If the IZC (with Chapter 10 intact) becomes a model development code for American communities, the sign industry can wave goodbye to billions in annual sales. Perhaps worst of all, these arbitrary regulations are currently being pushed through the code development cycle completely outside the pale of democratic due process.

According to Bertucci, as of this writing (late August), the ICC still has not responded to USSC’s official challenge of its Public Hearings Report filed on July 7, 1997. It’s now abundantly clear that the code developers believe they can shove Chapter 10 down the sign industry’s throat as a little-known addendum to the IZC package. As someone who values the experience of meeting many key players in the sign business during the past year, I’m betting that ICC is dead wrong. ST intends to stay on top of this critical issue, and we urge you to contact the appropriate organizations and your local political leaders to express your concerns.

Wade Swormstedt

Wade Swormstedt

Wade is Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry. Formerly he was Editor and Publisher of Signs of the Times magazine.

More Posts

Posted in Amoritzation, Associations, Sign Codes, Temporary Signs, Visibility and Legibility.