Sign Codes and the Need for Advocacy

The following article originally appeared in the October 1983 issue of Signs of the Times magazine.

This is Part II of a speech given at the Eight-Sheet Outdoor convention in San Francisco.

By R. James Claus

Objectives in code writing
Sign-industry involvement in the code-writing process should include two goals: That signs be regulated to conform to zoned land uses rather than banned outright; and that all outdoor-communications media be consistently included and fairly treated. To safeguard against a ban, or an overly broad code with undesirable and unintended effects, sign-industry spokesmen should insist that drafters of the code identify their overall objectives and specify carefully what they wish to regulate. Legislators must understand the differences and similarities between eight-sheets and other forms of outdoor advertising. Nothing is potentially more harmful for eight-sheet interests than to be undifferentiated from other forms in code writing.

For example, Hooks Outdoor Adv., Ltd., successfully resisted a proposed outdoor-advertising ban in the city council of Edmonton, AB, Canada, after having failed at the planning-commission level. Speaking for the company, Keith Brown told the council he agreed to a need for regulation, but asked its members to take a long, hard look at what the City of Edmonton wanted to regulate. He presented the results of an industry-funded study that revealed the following: Residents of Edmonton objected to signs and the commercialism they represented in one zone specifically — the Scenic River Valley Area — and to the height and appearance of structures in some other zones. By removing signs entirely from the Scenic River Area and reducing the height or improving the appearance of signs in other areas, Hooks Outdoor was able to satisfy the residents and continue functioning as an integral part of the commercial environment.

Interestingly, the industry study also revealed that night lighting of signs in certain areas was valued by both merchants and residents because tourists were drawn from main highways to those areas by an “entertainment atmosphere,” and by residents because sign illumination made them feel safer walking the streets at night.

Signs and energy use
In 1973, a ban on illuminating outdoor signs was proposed — ostensibly to save an estimated 40,000 barrels of oil daily — by the federal agency that later became the Department of Energy. We at the Institute of Signage Research were able to defeat the proposal by pointing out several facts: 1) Commercial signs use electricity usually after 6 p.m. — that generators are not operating at or near capacity. Because of indivisibilities in electric-power generation, a certain level of production must be maintained to produce any power at all. The use of illuminated outdoor signs at night made revenue available to the utilities from power that would, in some cases, have been wasted. 2) In 1973, as today, most electric power was generated from coal, not oil. 3) The use of signs to direct and inform motorists actually saves petroleum by reducing the number of vehicle miles necessary to complete shopping trips.

In addition to making the above facts clear, we enlisted the help of the Small Business Administration. SBA agreed there would be no energy saving, and strengthened the case against an illumination ban by showing that the private cost of turning off outdoor signage at night would fall disproportionately on the small businessman.

This example is especially important to remember in light of projections that backlit eight-sheets will be an expanding sector of the industry in the months and years to come.

The use of litigation
Although litigation, because of the time, expense and expertise involved, is properly seen as a last resort, it has been used to overturn excessively broad and/or discriminatory codes. A sign association filed suit against a Woburn, MA, ordinance that purported to regulate signs, arguing that the language of the measure made it binding on other types of displays as well. The court agreed the language was so broad as to include gasoline pumps, vending machines and tombstones. The measure was redrafted.

Generally, the danger of an overly broad code can be mitigated by showing, as fully as possible, the extent of the group of citizens whose rights and finances will be impacted. The larger the group, the more likely it is that legislators will draft a reasonable, conservative document.

Anatomy of a sign code
Sign codes usually comprise five sections: 1) purpose and scope 2) definitions 3) regulations 4) administration and fee structures, and 5) building and electrical codes, The first three deserve closer examination from the point of view of the eight-sheet industry. The fourth, administration and fee structures, is too complex to examine in depth, although new entrants into the eight-sheet industry have interests substantially different from those of established firms. The fifth, building and electrical codes, is standardized in most jurisdictions across the country (with the exception of southern Florida), so it merits little discussion here.

Although attorneys sometimes advise eight-sheet clients to disregard purpose and scope, neglect seems ill-advised. The purpose and scope of any law is a philosophical framework on which its later, specific provisions are hung. For a sign code, therefore, it should be positive; it should say the purpose of the code is to enhance the commercial/industrial environment and the use of outdoor-communications signage within that environment. Unless the purpose and scope section broadly recognizes the public and private benefits of signs, the inclusion of provisions necessary and proper to their function in other sections is left to chance.

Critical definitions
Definitions are even more critical to the industry, although they sometimes receive insufficient attention when drafting a sign code. Both the Highway Act of 1958 and the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 incorporated a broad definition of “flashing sign.” Not only did this definition delay the introduction of electronic message centers; it actually prohibited signs that could be turned on by night and off by day.

The eight-sheet industry will want to pay special attention to the definitions of “sign,” “size”, “abandon”, “spacing” and “height” incorporated in draft sign codes.

A sign should be defined as a visual-communications medium, not an “attention-getting device”. Its size should be defined in terms of copy area, exclusive of pole covers, ornaments and decorative trim.

In the context of an aesthetically oriented code, incorporating stringent size limits, and a sign definition that includes these items as well as copy area, a sign company can be penalized for trying to improve the appearance of its structures!

The definition of “abandonment” should exclude a change of panels, so a new permit is not required each time panels are changed.

Spacing definitions should refer to the direction from which a sign is viewed, its size and height. Clearly the eight-sheet format, because of its small size and minimal obtrusiveness, doesn’t require as much space between faces as do 24-sheets, 30-sheets and painted bulletins. Eight-sheets should be permitted closer together and closer to larger faces than the latter are to each other.

Height limits should be stated, whenever possible, from the lower of grade or street level, not the higher. Measuring from the highest point on the lot, or from street level, often requires that signs be built too low to be seen from the street, rendering some potential locations useless.

Regulatory approaches
Four general approaches to regulating outdoor signage are used today, typically in combination. The interests of the eight-sheet industry dictate definite preferences as to which are used, and in what relative proportions.

The first approach examines each proposed sign individually, according to a set of design criteria. This approach is often used in historic or other special zones. I recommend its use be restricted to these zones whenever possible, because it presents due-process and administrative problems in some cases and is always cumbersome.

The second is to regulate according to the type of business using the sign. This is, I believe, the worst approach of the four, because firms in the same general line of business often have widely varying access to communications resources other than outdoor advertising. For instance, a small independent hamburger stand is in the same line of business as McDonald’s, but it cannot afford to advertise on television or in national magazines.

The third approach regulates according to land-use zone; the fourth according to right-of-way specifications. I believe that a combination of these approaches is the fairest and most flexible way to regulate signage. All other considerations being equal — including land-use zone — wider roads that handle faster traffic should permit the construction of larger and higher signs at greater setbacks from the road.

The need for advocacy
In conclusion, participation in the code-writing process can allow the eight-sheet industry to make a positive contribution to land-use planning. To participate effectively, the industry must be sensitive to the various requirements of different land-use zones and to planners’ objectives. Industry spokesmen must also be sure that planners and legislators understand the vital resource-allocation function served by outdoor signs, and the unique characteristics of eight-sheets as an advertising medium.

Without industry input, counterproductive legislation is extremely likely. Street Graphics, a book that contains a model sign code funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a case in point. The model was adopted in several municipalities to the great detriment of the sign industry. We simply can’t rely on the federal government to explain our industry to its local regulators. Our legal system is based on advocacy, and if we want the economic viability of the eight-sheet industry and the constitutional rights of outdoor advertisers to be protected. we must be advocates for the industry.

R. James Claus, formerly of the Institute of Signage Research, the now defunct research arm of the National Electric Sign Assn., is presently president of Claus Outdoor Adv., an eight-sheet plant in Los Banos, CA.


Photo by Tobias Moore on Unsplash

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 Associations, Outdoor Advertising, Sign Codes, Small Business Administration.