Effective Enforcement of Signage Control

Some Policy Considerations For Sign Legislation

By Dr. R.J. Claus

Part 4 of a series

It is axiomatic that any program for sign regulation is only as good as its provisions for enforcement. The problem most often found in the proposals of the culturally elite is that judicially unenforceable plans result in major revisions from the outset.

Rather than indulge in a theoretical discussion of what the problems of enforcement might be, one can try to determine and deal with the problems that would arise in the course of a formal review of the sign legislation of a major city.

Planning is a dynamic and continuous process. What may have been an excellent plan a few years ago may soon, with the increasing use of the automobile and of possible fleW means of transportation, the advent of new building materials and the advent of new electronic devices, be inapplicable to the needs of urban society. Any ordinance must be continuously reviewed and revised or, in an information-rich society such as ours, it will quickly lose touch with the electorate’s desires. The government then realizes that the ordinance is not enforceable and it is ignored. Even an ordinance which is in touch with the needs of the public almost invariably presents obstacles in the form of enforcement costs. There are few properly enforced sign ordinances in existence today in North America. If enforcement were both possible and consistent, the ordinances already in effect would undoubtedly be more than sufficient to reduce most of the causes for complaint by citizens’ groups. The problem underlying laxity in enforcement invariably involves financing.

Approaches to Enforcement

There are two approaches a city can take toward developing effective enforcement. These two approaches will overlap somewhat, but they are nevertheless conceptually separate.

1. Increase Number of Government Inspectors
The first approach is to develop a very large body of government inspectors and officials to carry out the enforcement. There are obviously some drawbacks here. If this method were applied in a large city, it would be necessary to begin by commissioning a time/work study in order to estimate the number of signs in the city and the average time needed for inspecting each one. It could then be determined how many people would be needed to carry out inspection of all the signs over a certain period of time. The necessary people would then have to be hired to carry out the work.

Thus, it would be necessary to vastly increase the size of the city staff in order to accomplish this task, and in addition, it would be necessary to find sign experts who understand the electrical structure, the materials and the engineering aspects of the sign as well as the characteristics of each zone. This brings up a problem in some cities because the zoning specifications constitute one set of regulations and the structural and materials specifications constitute another. Signage is not being treated as a coherent field. While it is true that it is an accessory use, it is perhaps the most ubiquitous accessory use in a city.

2. Industry Self-Policing
The second approach would involve self-policing by the industry, which would considerably reduce the demands on the city. This approach would require a high degree of interaction between the city and the industry; fortunately, many cities are close to the stage where this is possible.

The first step would be to develop a checklist on which to indicate whether a sign meets these specifications. There would also he a building and electrical code sheet to perform a similar service. This sheet can be tailored to a city’s Uniform Building Code.

Certain firms and individuals who have contractor’s licenses and who work in the field of sign construction and installation could be required to fill out these checksheets; if they falsified these in any way, they would lose their contractor’s license. It should be pointed out that if a large company lost its contractor’s license in a certain city, it would soon lose its contractor’s license for the entire state in which it was located. So the chance that contractors would take the risk of falsifying checksheets is almost nil.

Inspection will have two stages: (1) the actual on-site inspection by a city building department inspector when the sign is first installed; (2) a primary inspection in the factory by the Underwriters Laboratory inspectors, insuring that the sign passes the UL 48 standards for Safety (Electric Signs).

The two-year inspection by the city or the sign companies will then certify that the sign still meets the UL 48 standards and the Uniform Building Code specifications.

Before any sign company can certify the signs on the biannual basis, it will have to be licensed by the city in which the signs are located. This licensing is a second guarantee of strict adherence to the new on-premise regulations.

Thus, there are two basic costs involved in enforcement with regard to new signs. One is the cost of issuing the permit; the other is the cost of inspection to insure that the terms of a permit are being followed. The cost of inspection may be largely avoided in those cases where signs are built by holders of contractor’s licenses, but the permit cost will remain constant. The costs for this can be borne by an increase in general taxes.

The real problem in many cities, however, is that a large percentage of the signs already in use are illegal or nonconforming, and that many of them have been erected without permits. Unfortunately, many of these signs are borderline cases, and unless one is an expert in signage, it is almost impossible to recognize them.

These remarks apply in various ways to the problems of enforcement of most major cities. There are, of course, instances where a sign will not be in accordance with the various specifications mentioned. If the effect of this deviation is to endanger the public health and safety, it is fair that the sign be promptly removed and that an abatement period be instituted. This would also be true of any other offending land use. If it is through a change in zoning that a sign is made illegal, a reasonable means of enforcement would be to require its removal and to make appropriate compensation to the owner.

There are several general methods of appraising the value of property to determine what sum should be paid as compensation to the property owner. Guidelines that are practical in assessing other land use values become complex when applied to signs. Some of the standards used include: (1) the market value of the property; (2) replacement value; (3) its value to the owner; (4) its value as an income producing property. In addition, there are some states with federally-approved condemnation schedules for beautification as well as normal highway improvement.

The task of estimating the amount of income that is generated by a sign is very difficult and usually involves some form of market research. Companies which have investigated the impact of advertising invested in signage have been very impressed by the power of signs to attract business. For example, Holiday Inn, one of the largest nationally franchised motel chains, has learned that no less than twelve percent of the business done in any of their establishments could be attributed to the attraction offered by their signs. Normally, companies are not aware of this percentage and, therefore, the assessment is at best an estimate.

A recent book, The Appraisal of Roadside Advertising Signs, by Donald T. Sutte, Jr., represents an attempt to clarify some of the issues involved. It is a rather technical work, however, and is probably of limited usefulness to municipal governments. It deals with such points as the age-life concept and the use of relocation agreements to determine the value of signs. In many cities compensation is sometimes avoided because it requires expertise which is not available from individuals on the city planning staff. An intelligent city council, however, deserves to be forewarned of the complexity of the task.

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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