Albuquerque Sign Ordinance Reflects a Troubling Trend

In a number of U.S. jurisdictions these days, municipal officials have restricted signage to the extent where local businesses have become virtually invisible. A prime example of this was reported recently by Albuquerque’s KRQE-TV. Enforcement of a draconian sign ordinance in the city’s historic Old Town section spurred a number of complaints from local merchants that their businesses suffer from poor identification. Making matters worse, the city even prohibits these merchants from illuminating the small, electronic “Open” signs commonly placed inside shop windows.

Unfortunately, it was only after the advertising ability of local merchants had been virtually decimated that the city realized it created a problem. Now city officials are scrambling to figure out how to restore a modicum of common sense to the sign code.

Rather than being an isolated oddity, the situation in Albuquerque points to a couple of troubling facts that increasingly make life difficult, not only for sign companies, but for the end users they serve:

  1. Instead of basing sign code regulations on empirical evidence, many local jurisdictions automatically assume that signs are too large, too high or too numerous. Thus, each time a local jurisdiction revises its sign code, authorities impose ever-greater restrictions on the latitude of local businesses to utilize signs for identification and advertising. As this cycle is repeated over time, signage ultimately is rendered ineffective for users.
  2. Municipal officials charged with developing sign codes generally do not appreciate the crucial role of signage in maintaining the economic vitality of communities.

As the Albuquerque story further illustrates, the dialogue surrounding signage has become increasingly polarized. Consequently, municipalities often view sign regulation as an all-or-nothing proposition which compels a city to invoke strict limits based on the unfounded fear that their community otherwise might become “another Las Vegas.”

What’s missing from this discussion is any recognition of the baseline requirements for effective signage or the bottom-line necessity for small businesses to utilize sign advertising. As cited in the Albuquerque story, the overall impression of many city officials appears to be that signs are “tacky” and, if not eliminated entirely, at least ought to be severely restricted.

This frame of mind poses a direct threat to the sign industry, as well as to the advertising rights of millions of sign users, the majority of which are small businesses. Unfortunately, when revising or developing sign codes, local officials typically cite the most extreme examples from other jurisdictions to justify substantial reductions in allowable sign sizes, heights or numbers. Thus, in an entirely self-referential manner, local jurisdictions are citing examples of regulatory excess as being representative of the norm.

In a number of communities across the nation, regulations have already reached or surpassed the point that renders signage dysfunctional. While they do not exercise a similar degree of authority with respect to other features in the built environment, local government authorities increasingly have assumed the roles of product engineers with respect to signage. This is true because the entire functionality of a sign depends on its ability to prominently deliver a message. By continually downsizing allowable dimensions and numbers, local jurisdictions are tinkering directly with the fundamental performance properties of signage.

Bill Dundas

Bill Dundas

Bill Dundas, a 40-year veteran of the on-premise sign industry as a fabricator, installer and journalist, is President/Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry (FASI).

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