How USSC and ISA Jointly Improved the Intl. Zoning Code

After two years of collaborative effort, the ICC, ISA and USSC release the Intl. Zoning Code’s new-and-improved sign chapter

The following article originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

By Jennifer Flinchpaugh

“An estimated 80,000 communities could have adopted the ICC’s zoning code and, by default, the problematic sign code.”

In 1997, when the Intl. Sign Assn. (ISA) and the United States Sign Council (USSC) joined forces to combat the Intl. Code Council’s (ICC) proposed Intl. Zoning Code (IZC), sign-industry skeptics claimed the associations were overreacting.

“We took some criticism initially for our efforts,” says Kirk Brimley, ISA’s sign-code consultant. “But we didn’t want to be adversarial; we wanted to be proactive, not reactive.”

Brimley, USSC Executive Director Andy Bertucci and Attorney David Jones (all three are now deceased) were concerned with the first draft of IZC’s chapter 10, which included a contentious model sign code. They were worried because the ICC code could have had far-reaching impact.

Bertucci explains that the ICC comprises the United States’ three major building- and code-development agencies: the Building Officials and Code Administrators Intl. Inc., the Intl. Conference of Building Officials and the Southern Building Code Congress Intl. Inc. As such, an estimated 80,000 communities could have adopted the ICC’s zoning code and, by default, the problematic sign code.

ICC’s proposed IZC sign regulations

What was wrong with the 1997 version of ICC’s proposed sign code? According to the code, freestanding signs in industrial zones were allowed faces measuring 150 sq. ft.

But in commercial zones, the faces of freestanding signs were limited to 40 sq. ft., regardless of wayfinding needs, local customs, and roadside and traffic conditions.

In addition, the code prohibited architectural identity banners, private flags, flexible awnings and overhead canopy signs. Also prohibited were neon, fiber-optic and electroluminescent illumination used as exterior lighting sources or aesthetic embellishments. The original code “eliminated a lot of sign uses, including flexible-face signage and banners,” says Bertucci. “The writers of the code [who were primarily building officials] just didn’t understand the sign industry. There were references to older codes that were antiquated. Plus, the code writers had little understanding of electronic signs.”

In addition, the original code included only a rudimentary – and somewhat inaccurate – definitions section. The terms weren’t correct,” Brimley says, “especially when dealing with high-voltage electricity transformers, neon, ballasts and fluorescents specialized for sign use.”

“A code with accurate definitions takes about 50% of the subjectivity out of enforcement,” adds Bertucci.

After having expressed their concerns to ICC, Brimley, Bertucci and Jones were invited to submit their own model sign code. Using existing guideline codes from ISA and USSC and tables chronicling the results of USSC’s Penn State sign-visibility studies (see Legislation Matters: “USSC Study Earns Variances, “ST, July 1999, page 64), the trio did just that.

“We made it clear to ICC that the code we were submitting was based on scientific data,” says Bertucci. “ICC had some minor changes to our submission. For example, they reduced the specified copy size on awnings and canopies by 25%. And they wanted to add a residential-sign section. But they virtually accepted our code as it was submitted.”

ICC’s adopted IZC sign regulations

ICC’s new sign code, to be released this month, includes the following:

  • A definitions section describing more than 60 types of signage. In this section, commonly confused terms are clarified, such as electrically activated signs; patterned, illusionary-movement animated signs, manually activated changeable signs, and electrically activated changeable signs.
  • Illustrations showing many types of signage, including sloping roof-mount signs, flat-roof-mount signs, canopy-mount signs, mansard-mount signs and pent-eave-mount signs.


  • Diagrams depicting how to compute the square footage of a sign face for code-compliance purposes.
  • General provisions regarding code conformance; signs in the right-of-way; projections over public ways; traffic visibility; computation of frontage; animation and changeable messages; maintenance, repair and removal; obsolete sign copy; and nonconforming signs.
  • A list of exempt signage, including official notices, memorial plaques, fine art and address signs.
  • A list of prohibited signs, such as signs that obstruct or interfere with traffic signals.
  • Permit requirements for obtaining, constructing and changing signage.
  • Specific requirements for identification and directional signs.
  • Sign-visibility tables derived from USSC’s Penn State study.
  • Specifications for temporary signs, including real-estate signs, development and construction signs, special-promotions and grand-opening signs, special-event signs, portable signs and political signs.
  • Requirements for specialty signs, such as canopy and marquee signs, awning signs, projecting signs, under canopy signs, roof signs, window sign and menuboards.
  • Specifications regarding signs for development complexes. (Note: Sign structural requirements are not specified under the IZC because they are discussed in the ICC’s Intl. Building Code.)

“A good sign code recognizes the positive economic impact of signage in a community. And a good code focuses on size, area, placement and color – but not copy control, because that’s a First Amendment issue on which courts have come down hard,” says Brimley. “We’re pretty well satisfied with ICC’s new sign code. It’s not a ‘drop-in code’ because it’s not specific in some areas, and it allows communities some leeway to use their own judgment. But it could be put in place by almost any city or country as a model code.”

What happens now? Bertucci says, after the ICC publishes the code this month, it will be available through USSC for research purposes. Further, he encourages signmakers to offer their input on the code because in three years, it will be revised.

Brimley says that with the ICC project at least temporarily completed, he’ll focus his efforts fully on a similar project  — the American Planning Assn. ‘s (APA) Planning Advisory Service Publication. The publication, which covers signage, will be offered in mid-2000.

“With the APA, we’ve had to satisfy even more people, because the APA is looked to setting the standards in the planning industry,” Brimley explains. “We’re having to educate APA members about signage, just as we had to educate ICC members.”

For more background on this situation, read a previous article at

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.

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Posted in 1st Ammendment / Freedom of Speech, Associations, Content Neutrality (Reed v. Gilbert), Sign Codes, Temporary Signs.