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Fitting a Round Sign into a Square Code

If sign codes were easy to comply with, every sign created would have to be square, with perfect symmetry, and have a message that never changed.

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

The fact is that competition exists; creative minds are at work; and fortunately for the sign industry, things do change.

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  • New ideas, materials and technologies have offered more options to businesses, and provide easier and affordable solutions for some very impressive and effective communication.

    New sign types - like flexible LED screens, dynamic digital signage, EMCs, ďtradigitalĒ (traditional and digital mix), and even creative temporary sign designs - while familiar to the sign industry, have raised questions among many city planners and zoning inspectors. These different designs and new sign types are a regulatory challenge when they arenít recognized or defined within a code, and many planning departments admit they havenít kept up with industry changes. This is where we find a code that doesnít fit, causing local officials to scramble for a solution.

    If a sign code does not address, or hasnít been established for a new or different sign type, a municipality may find they have no authority to regulate it. So when these new signs start going up seemingly uncontrolled it can often lead to questions and complaints from businesses and residents, which can then get the attention of the zoning commission and planning boards. But without specific regulations, these authorities are left with limited, and not always business-friendly options.

    Some sign codes may only describe prohibited signs with a short list of characteristics (e.g., no blinking, no rotating, no flashing, no message changing, etc.) rather than a full definition. For allowable signs, the definition and description are usually based in part on technologies only known by the planners at the time the codes were written. When a wave of new types of signs and technologies are introduced into the area, some municipalities feel new rules are required, and will halt sign permit applications or delay approvals until such time that they have the issues addressed.

    New Signs, Old Rules
    This was the case in Chicago in 2013. Chicagoís City Council implemented a nine-month moratorium on approving any LED display signs after local communities expressed concerns with the signsí location and use. City officials realized they didnít have rules in place to regulate such signs, as the old rules didnít require council approval. After nine months, the city was able to establish new regulations for these specific signs, but during that time business owners could not get their signs permitted or installed, and sign producers found it difficult to sell LED signs.

    In another instance in Medford, Oregon, local authorities had to allow digital signs to go up without permits because the old rules didnít address the new sign type and technology, and there were no laws to prevent them. As in Chicago, neighbors complained and pressed the local officials to respond, which resulted in the city revisiting their entire sign code and working to establish new rules.

    Still, in other municipalities, zoning and planning officials have said they feel cornered into taking the very unpopular approach of denying permits for new sign types or designs based on inadequate or missing codes. These authorities look strictly at their written codes, and will not grant approvals for signs that are not specifically defined, or do not meet the requirements as written.

    Any one of these scenarios can impact a business for weeks, months or even years.

    One other approach that is encouraged among planners, though sometimes slow to be accepted, is to see what existing sign codes come close to fitting the proposed sign, and work with the sign producer or owner to establish reasonable requirements for compliance in the spirit of the code.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    Working Within the Spirit of the Code
    In thinking of working within the spirit of the code, sign companies and/or sign customers can communicate this approach to the local municipalities ahead of the application process. While most municipalities want to maintain a balance between community and business, they are not always able to keep up with technological changes, and arenít the experts in sign design and specifications.

    The zoning and planning departments need to know the details of the new sign type. They need to know the features of the sign and structure; how the sign operates; materials used; benefits of the sign to the public; and most importantly, how it will not cause a problem or violate a code. Municipalities are generally not in the business of researching solutions, so these efforts fall back on the sign owner or producer.

    Such efforts involve looking into the current codes and rules, and searching for similarities with your sign design or specifications; a strategy to help connect the dots for the planning department to see and understand will also need to be developed. It is also advisable to keep track of any objections raised by the municipality along the way, so that you can develop a counter argument. For instance, because most sign regulations are based in part on traffic safety and aesthetics, these can be the first issues raised and addressing them quickly can greatly improve the chances of an approval under the spirit of a code.

    What may also help is to see if your state sign codes have addressed the type of sign, or if there is a case where the state granted approval for a similar sign. Even though state approval does not equate to local approval, it can provide a strong case for accepting the sign.

    Another peripheral area to investigate would be the local building codes or other local rules that address your sign type or design. Some rules that may have been used in association with sign codes could have been updated since the sign code was written and may support your proposal for approval.

    Things are never one size fits all, and that goes for signs and codes. Eventually, some sign codes will catch up to industry technologies and designs, but, in the meantime, knowing how to provide solutions to these challenges when they arise can provide your company with a competitive advantage. Even just having the resources available to help you gather the information your customer needs will set your company apart.

    Rick Hartwig is an environmental, health and safety contractor at SGIA. With nearly 30 yearsí experience within the printing industry, he has been directly involved with operations management, regulatory compliance, and sustainability. In this capacity, he works closely with all regulatory agencies on addressing related EHS issues at the federal, state and local levels. As a part of SGIA, Hartwig provides assistance to members by monitoring, interpreting and communicating relevant compliance information related to business signage. His effort includes the research of zoning codes, determining regulatory trends and enforcement issues, as well as the establishment of plain language outreach materials and content designed to aid those producing, installing and owning signs.

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

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