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Invasion of the Moratoriums

Sign moratoriums are ordinances that temporarily restrict usage of a particular area. This allows a municipality to study potential effects and establish new or revised regulations.

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

The moratorium can be enacted citywide or could focus on specific areas, such as a particular neighborhood, historic districts or the business section of a town.

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  • With respect to the sign industry, they can be used to temporarily stop the issuance of sign applications/approvals, usage permits, and/or associated building permits for sign installations until new or revised sign codes are established.

    For example, in Sussex County, Delaware, a six-month moratorium is being proposed for off-premises sign applications after county officials determined their sign code doesn't adequately cover electronic/off-premises signs.

    Then there are instances that are a direct result of the ruling in Reed vs. Town of Gilbert, in which the US Supreme Court decided that sign regulation cannot be based on the content of the sign in question. As a result of the ruling, the municipality needs to regroup to be sure their code complies with content neutrality - and a sign moratorium allows them to do just that.

    Another circumstance is if a municipality finds it doesn't have an existing code to regulate a particular type of sign, or if they received complaints or concerns about signage, the city will likely enact an emergency moratorium. The emergency issuance seeks to prevent a rush of applications through loopholes or ahead of pending changes.

    Depending on the local law and procedures or the extent of code updates needed, a typical moratorium can have a relatively short life (30-60 days), or a long life (several months) with the possibility for extensions.

    The Domino Effect
    Unfortunately, most cities can adopt emergency moratoriums without going through all the typical procedures that it would take to amend its municipal sign code. As a result, there is no advance notice to affected businesses or the public, and it can wreak havoc on sign companies and their customers.

    On the surface, sign moratoriums temporarily stop new signs from being erected, but there are larger impacts overall. Depending on the proposed length of the moratorium, it can stop an existing sign company from selling signs; stop or delay businesses from advertising; and deter new businesses from entering the local market. The supply chain will see fewer orders, and sign installers will consequently be faced with fewer signs to erect.

    A drastic example of this occurred 2013 when the city of Chicago enacted a nine-month moratorium on all small digital signs - every single one. This blindsided a lot of small sign shops, including Affiliated Resources, Inc. The company has specialized in small digital signs for over 30 years, and they were hit hard when the moratorium struck. According to Stephen Stillman, President of Affiliated Resources, Inc., 70 percent of their signs were small digital signs sold in the city of Chicago, meaning 70 percent of their revenue ceased overnight. They would continue to take that loss throughout the length of the moratorium.

    Nine months is an extremely long time to continually lose income, but not nearly enough time to modify a business strategy to make up the difference. Because of this, Affiliated Resources ended up laying off employees, losing customers and sacrificing personal income. The company still feels the effects to this day.

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    Jumping the Hurdle
    A moratorium can be an enormous obstacle - but there are ways to jump over it. When you hear about such an ordinance, stop to read it. Find out what it covers, and what types of signs it affects. Why is it being enacted, and how long is it proposed for? Figure out how it could impact your products, if at all.

    If the moratorium does impact your business, then it will definitely impact your customers. This is where effective communication is vital. Explain the situation to your clients and what delays may occur, and relay any helpful suggestions as early as possible. If you can offer alternative signage or recommend altering a design that will conform to existing rules outside of the moratorium, it might save your sale. This works best for companies that are diversified in their products and services.

    For those who want to take legal action, you'll most likely be fighting an uphill battle. For example, in Georgia where moratoriums have been enacted on the state, county and city levels, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that a temporary sign moratorium was not final legislative action and therefore could not be subject to the established notice and hearing requirements. In other words, because the moratoriums aren't permanent legislation, they can't be challenged with traditional court proceedings.

    What you can do, however, is hasten the process by getting involved. Contact the city for more information to raise your issues, offer constructive suggestions or offer helpful guidance based on what the ordinance is seeking. Don't miss the opportunity to attend any public meetings, and get to know the city staff involved in the decision. Provide as much information to support your side of the equation as a local business. Remember, most cities do not have a sign expert on staff. Many municipalities welcome an understanding of the options and value of signs from those who make and use them.

    Eventually, a sign moratorium will end, resulting in a better and more balanced sign code - that's the goal, at least. Cities will always have a reason to periodically look at their codes, and sign moratoriums are a distinct possibility wherever regulation exists. The best way to minimize the potential impact is to be prepared and informed.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, November / December 2016 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2016 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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