What Does a Business Owner Think About the Bozeman, MT Sign Code?

Roger Koopman wrote an editorial for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle a quarter century ago. Does it sound like it could be written today? This appeared in the February 1991 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

One of the more interesting hypocrisies of contemporary liberalism is the ease with which its followers can advocate a soft-on-crime posture when traditional issues of justice are involved (violence, theft, etc.), while, at the same time, they can pass the severest of laws against peaceful citizens who never did violence to anyone. They spew forth every possible excuse on behalf of the thug, the murderer and the rapist, but if you are a small businessman who somehow thought you had the right to do with your own property as you saw fit, they’ll nail you to the wall for failing to get the requisite licenses and permissions from the Central Planning Bureau.

So it is with the bullies at City Hall who call themselves commissioners. By way of a “temporary zoning law,” they created a whole new class of “criminals” from among those who failed to realize that independent entrepreneurial thinking has no place in the Brave New Bozeman of 1990. The scapegoat is the business sign, but the issue is freedom.

Under the new sign law, designed to reduce something they call “visual clutter,” they have totally banned new billboards and portable signs, and have mandated the removal of portable signs within two years. Various other bans and restrictions have been decreed. Violators of the sign law (criminals all) will be fined up to $500 and jailed up to six months for every day of non-compliance. In other words, if a businessman was using an “illegal” sign for a month, these fair-minded, tender-hearted City Commissioners could fine him $15,000 and lock him up for 15 years.

Meanwhile, your tax dollars are being used to pay city employees to patrol our streets in search of these dastardly sign violators. And our commissioners are preparing to spend another $20,000 of our money to hire an out-of-state “expert” to design Bozeman’s “streetscapes” of the future.” (They spent $50,000 last year to have some Denver consultant “plan” our community for us.)

The question must be asked: Just who are our city commissioners representing — the people of Bozeman or a narrow political constituency that noisily espouses their radical agenda?

Because the commission has no intention of surveying our opinions on this or any other issue, I conducted my own survey, using a confidential questionnaire that was given to every client/customer who entered my business in May.

My business displays an 8-ft., four-color, lighted sign that conforms to city regulations. Part of my survey dealt with specific attitudes toward that sign, while the remainder addressed general sign regulation issues. Here are the results from my 189 responses:

  • 99.3% said my sign didn’t bother them at all.
  • 97.2% said the sign was useful in locating my business.
  • 81% thought the size of my sign was fine; 19% thought it should be made “larger and more visible,” and 0% thought it should be smaller.
  • 65.5% “seldom, if ever” think about the visual appearance of business signs.

When asked what they would do about a “highly offensive sign,” 78.6% said they would express their displeasure to the business owner or do business elsewhere. Only 29.8% thought government officials should handle the matter.

These results clearly state that people put their faith in individual responsibility and in the marketplace, but this is a concept our elitist city government can’t even begin to understand.  And so they legislate to the approximately 10% who are bothered by the signs and want to see the government do something. In so doing, they ignore the 90% who just want to be left alone.

All the criticisms I received from my last editorial came from educators. Many of the “sign whiners” have little appreciation of what it takes for a town like Bozeman to build a business, meet a payroll and otherwise scratch out a meager and insecure living.

A free society is not a perfect society, but it is the freedom to choose, and to accept responsibility for our choices, that brings out the best in all of us. It creates a society that is dynamic, ever-changing and rich with diversity. Beware of those who would shatter our community by seeking to politically impose not diversity, but uniformity, not growth, but control, not change but resistance to all things different and new.

A look at the 2016 Bozeman sign code shows a ban on LED, inflatable and rooftop signs. Additionally, “A comprehensive sign plan shall be submitted for all commercial, office, industrial, and civic uses consisting of two or more tenants or occupant spaces on a lot(s) subject to a common development permit or plan.” The application fee is $220. 

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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