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There is More to Signs than Meets the Eye - A Peek at Permits

The obvious details when considering a sign include design, purchase costs, delivery and installation. However, lesser known, but equally important, details regarding signs can be overlooked, thus complicating things. One of these lesser-known details involves permits.

By Rick Hartwig, EHS Specialist, Government and Business Information, SGIA

Many thoughts and ideas go into choosing the right sign for a business.

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  • At its basic level, a sign is an object that will identify a business or service. But it is actually an investment and another means to "speak" to the customer.

    When the regulatory community looks at signs, they think of a physical object, the location of the object and possibly the printed context or image. As a result, the rules and restrictions pertaining to signs and their installation are usually based on little else and can be confining.

    Depending on the specific location of the business or the ultimate sign location, permitting requirements for certain types of sign categories can address a number of planning factors: Size limitation, color and design, context, site plans, installation and delivery logistics, private or public property, temporary or permanent signs, maintenance, environmental impact, and public safety.

    What is a permit?
    A permit for a sign is simply a legal document showing authorization by a regulatory body, indicating that a review and approval was performed for the sign's use, construction, installation, or other consideration or application. A permit also can outline specific guidelines and conditions that must be met by the sign owner in order to comply with local ordinances.

    Application reviews, permits and guidelines can vary greatly by municipality and state, and will often reflect the particular needs and resources of the different areas. For instance, in cities with congested business districts or high turnover, they may have less complex reviews or shorter applications simply because the logistics of reviewing each sign would overload their resources. However, in less congested locations, application reviews would be more manageable, and thus can be more comprehensive and detailed.

    Issued sign permits can be very specific, just for the sign or installation, or general, the entire scope of a project from delivery, construction, installation and use. For instance, a district may require a sign permit and then require a building permit for the construction or installation of that sign, and then require an additional permit for any traffic disruption caused by the delivery of the sign. Along with receiving a permit comes the responsibility for the sign owner to understand and adhere to the guidelines and/or conditions attached to the particular permit issued.

    It is important to note also that different city and state regulatory authorities may phrase these approvals and permissions in terms other than "sign permits," which may fall under the umbrella of building permits, installation permits, registrations, general applications or licenses.

    Why Permits?
    Permits serve a number of purposes. They may be used to control what is termed as "visual clutter," tracking and limiting the number of signs or types of signs installed in a particular area. A permit may also be used to control the type of message displayed in certain locations. For instance, many municipalities control the distance certain advertising subjects must be from a school zone, or whether or not commercial signs can be located near hazardous construction sites. Permits also act as an inventory of businesses, and to help to establish a tax record for built structures.

    When Permits Apply
    Generally, permits are required for installation of most commercial business signs (building wraps, billboards, banners, permanent, temporary, political signs, awnings, pole signs, etc.). Depending on the specific municipality or state, this can also include signs painted directly on outside walls, as well as fabricated signs hung on an outside wall or projecting from a building. In almost all cases, any structural component of an installation or attachment of a sign would require some form of a permit (building, electrical, excavation, general, etc.).

    Outside of a single sign permit, there can be circumstances when additional permits are required - perhaps when an ordinance states that multiple types of permits (building and electrical) are required, one for the sign installation and one for the electrical connection for illuminating lights in a sign cabinet. Building and installation permits are usually associated with the construction or installation of a structure sign, when excavation or utilities are involved, or where a sign is replaced or extended.

    In New York City, for example, moving a sign (even on-premise), relocating a sign off-premise, replacing existing signs and installing new signs all would require a permit. In addition, a permit could be required for sign removal if substantial efforts in excavation or electrical work were required by the removal process.

    Also consider whether special circumstances exist that require a permit or special approvals due to the unique location of the sign or business property. This would most often apply where a commercial sign is to be located within a residential zone. An example here would be a neighborhood convenience store located in, or adjacent to a residential zone.

    Keep in mind there can also be permit requirements for any subcontractors used in the project's execution. And, remember, a permit may list the responsibilities of an installer or contractor, but the owner of the sign will always be identified and can be ultimately responsible for meeting the permit conditions and guidelines.

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    Permit Exemptions
    The types of signs not typically requiring installation permits - or permits in general - are not as clearly defined by municipalities as are permit requirements. However, by comparing your sign specifications to the permit requirements, it should be possible to determine if it is exempt. For example, if a sign code requires a permit for signs over six feet in length and those that will be illuminated, then a sign less than six feet long and not illuminated would likely be exempt. The full permit or zoning requirements and possible exemptions should be examined to ensure that each of your sign characteristics meet the requirements for an exemption.

    In most cases, signs that are not visible from the outside of a building would not require a permit. It is also common that signs painted directly onto a window or door would not require a permit. For example, New York City lists permit-exempt signs as "painted signs." A possible exception to this is within a historical district or if the building has historic stipulations dictated by zoning ordinances, which can pop up unexpectedly.

    Even if a sign does not require a permit, it pays to check on other requirements associated with your category of sign for approval. For instance, in Chula Vista, California, a permit is not required for temporary signs, but such a project would require a Special Events Application. And under the New York City regulations, signs that are painted or smaller than six feet and not illuminated would not require a permit, but may need to be approved by a local borough.

    Catching You by Surprise
    Even with previously exempt signs, due diligence is necessary as permitting issues can still develop. For example, a grandfathered sign installed under an old ordinance is going to be removed, repaired or relocated - this sign may now be subject to a new ordinance and any new requirements. Also, it may be that a grandfather clause established for a municipality or state is only valid for a period of time before it expires.

    Adding elements (such as illumination, extensions, height, etc.) to an existing sign can also change the status of a sign permit requirement.

    A sign's "category" and location can be critical to permit requirements, as well. For instance, if an exempt sign has certain content restrictions (allowing only messages for your business) and then you change the message to promote a different business or activity, it could be in violation. You could face a penalty, and need to re-categorize or permit the sign.

    A similar situation is when a sign is simply misclassified from the beginning, and is listed as an exempt sign when in fact it is a permit-required sign. In such cases a penalty may be assessed, and the sign may need to be removed until a full permit approval process is complete.

    One easily forgotten sign mistake is when a business changes hands. The new business owner not only inherits the business and building, but also the existing sign and its permit conditions. Because most sign permits are associated with the owner of the sign, the new owner will need to apply for a new permit in their name. If it was an exempt sign but is going to be changed, the replacement may now require a permit.

    Remember, different cities, states and districts can have different sign codes and restrictions. Make sure to educate yourself on locally specific fees and coordination during the design process to help guide you, to keep your sign in place and legal.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, March / April 2014 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2014 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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