Electronic signs have been a frequent target of politicians and neighborhood activists. Opponents often claim that neon, fluorescent, LED, and high-intensity displays taint wholesome communities with Vegas-style garishness. They typically want electronic signs to be banned, removed, or downsized (sometimes to the point of illegibility).
In response, many cities have floated legislative trial balloons that aim to limit messaging frequency and/or luminosity. Some local governments have passed new laws — and even adopted the technology for themselves while trying to restrict commercial use. As sign codes change, here are seven strategies for increasing your odds of keeping an existing sign or getting a new permit approved.
1) Do your homework — Read the fine print in the local sign code. Sometimes, these codes include provisions that haven’t kept current with technological innovations in sign construction or social mores. Look into what other cities have done to resolve conflicts, and check out the United States Sign Council’s 2011 report Model On-Premise Sign Code, which gives sign owners and makers a tool to use against overly restrictive signage laws.
2) Tap expert resources — Sign associations are willing partners in preventing unconstitutional restrictions. These industry trade groups have a lot of experience, which they’ve gained through defending sign owners’ rights.
3) Form a local coalition — Shop owners may be willing to serve as watchdogs, alerting local business associations about potential restrictions on signage, through monitoring city hall agendas and minutes.
4) Maintain vigilance — Politically motivated “dirty tricks” are not unheard of when it comes to signage bans. In Spokane, Wash., an advisory committee appointed by the city proposed an ordinance that would have limited digital signs to just one image change per day. No one from the digital signage industry was invited to participate in drafting the proposed ordinance. Instead, the sole advisory committee member from the signage industry manufactured only non-illuminated signage. Local sign shop owners questioned the fairness of excluding those most familiar with the technology from the political process.
5) Bring in an expert — Choose someone who can educate the city’s legal counsel about various signage regulations. Officials, particularly in smaller municipalities, may not fully appreciate the constitutional rights of sign owners. Over many decades, multiple court cases have produced an extensive body of case law that well defines a municipality’s authority to regulate signs.
6) Respect a community’s aesthetics — An area’s overall appearance will always be an integral part of a community’s response to electronic signage. Before installing a provocative sign, consider whether over-the-top edginess may backfire.
7) Encourage self-policing — A sign maker may install an electronic message center and not take the time to teach its new owner how to program the sign so that it automatically dims at night. Colleagues may head off trouble with a friendly word of advice to tone it down.
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